5781 / 2020-21 PROGRAMME

Below, we give a preview of the upcoming Lit season, for which we are planning eleven meetings.

All meetings start at 8.00pm, and for this season are planned to take place online unless conditions change.

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Opening of the season: Sunday 18th October 2020: Aviva Ben-Ur, ‘Centering Slavery: The Jewish Community of Suriname, 1651-1825’

In the 18th century, the Dutch colony of Suriname in South America was home to arguably the most privileged Jewish community of its time. On the banks of its main river, Jews of Iberian ancestry founded their own village, surrounded by Jewish-owned plantations that were worked by African slaves. Among these Jews were slaveowners who converted some of their children to Judaism. This talk, based on the author’s recently published book Jewish Autonomy in a Slave Society, centers the concept of the “slave society” as a way to understand the Dutch colony’s Portuguese Jewish community in terms of its economy, politics, and identity. The book may be ordered online at a discount; details are on the attached flyer.

Aviva Ben-Ur is Professor in the Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, U.S.A. A historian specializing in Atlantic Jewish history, she is the author of Remnant Stones: The Jewish Cemeteries and Synagogues of Suriname: Essays (Hebrew Union College Press, 2012) and Remnant Stones: The Jewish Cemeteries of Suriname: Epitaphs (Hebrew Union College Press, 2009), both co-authored with Rachel Frankel; Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History (New York University Press, 2009), and Jewish Autonomy in a Slave Society: Suriname in the Atlantic World, 1651-1825 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).

Please register in advance for this meeting: https://ed-ac-uk.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJMkcOqsrD8uEtG-RpoKQh5wS6q1gvATBUvH. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting. This event will be recorded. By attending you consent to being part of the recording.


1 November: Poetry Evening

An evening of poetry with some members of our community. We will hear them read their own and others’ poetry with text available online. Taking part are: Joyce Caplan, Heather Valencia, Ellen Galford, David Bleiman, Geraldine Gould, Jenni Calder. We have not chosen a theme as we are hoping for a varied and inclusive experience for us all!

15 November: Jack Fairweather, ‘The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero who Infiltrated Auschwitz’

Jack Fairweather will talk about his book, The Volunteer, the story of Witold Pilecki and his remarkable mission in which he gets sent to Auschwitz where he sets up a resistance group, manages to escape and to send an account of life in the camp to the Polish Government in exile in London. In his talk, he will describe how he pieced together a life that had been hidden for decades.

Jack Fairweather is a journalist and award-winning author. He was born in Wales in 1978 and educated at Atlantic College and at Oxford University. He then became a war correspondent embedded with British troops during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and bureau chief for the Daily Telegraph in Baghdad, where he met his wife, who was a New York Times journalist. While he was in Iraq, he survived an attempted kidnapping and an attempted suicide bombing. He now has three children and divides his time between London and Vermont. Jack covered the war in Afghanistan for the Washington Post and his war coverage won him a British Press Award and an Overseas Press Club award citation. The Volunteer is his third book and won the Costa Book Award in 2019, one year after Bart van Es’s The Cut Out Girl.

The Lit has ordered 20 copies of The Volunteer from the Edinburgh Bookshop, 219 Bruntsfield Place, EH10 4DH (just before Holy Corner) for those who are planning to come to the meeting and wish to read the book beforehand. It reads like a thriller and, once you have started it, it is hard to put down. The book is published by Penguin and costs £9.99 but the bookseller has offered to sell them to Lit members with a small discount.

29 November: Jonathan Silvertown, ‘Comedy of Errors: Why Evolution Made Us Laugh’

We all laugh, but it’s an odd behaviour if you stop to think about it. Laughter is involuntary and infectious. It starts in the cradle, well before the development of speech, but this innate behaviour blossoms into something that can bring a whole room into uproar. It is found in all cultures and when heard it is recognisable across boundaries of language. All these characteristics strongly suggest that laughter is hard-wired into the human psyche, which immediately conjures the favourite question of every evolutionary biologist: what good is it? Answering that question throws new light on the subject of humour generally and Jewish humour in particular.

Jonathan Silvertown is Professor of Evolutionary Ecology in the Institute of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Edinburgh. In addition to numerous research publications, Jonathan has published 4 popular science books on evolutionary topics. The most recent is Dinner with Darwin: Food, Drink and Evolution, published by Chicago University Press in 2017. It has been translated into 8 languages. Comedy of Errors is forthcoming. www.jonathansilvertown.com; Twitter: @JWSilvertown.


10 January: James Wolffe, ‘Zur Erinnerung – Hildegard and Walter Schmidt’

The economic and cultural significance of Berlin’s German-Jewish elite families in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is well-known. In 1918 a member of one of those families, Hildegard Meyer, married a non-Jewish lawyer, Walter Schmidt. Their grandson, James Wolffe, tells their story – an individual and personal story, but one which illustrates the situation and fate of intermarried couples in Germany under the Nazi regime. James recently deposited a selection of his grandparents’ papers in the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre in Glasgow and an account of his visit appeared in the Herald. The latter can be accessed at https://www.heraldscotland.com/life_style/16598766.war-anti-semitism-old-family-secret-dark-history-helped-shape-james-wolffe-lord-advocate-scotland/.

James Wolffe QC has been the Lord Advocate since 1st June 2016. Prior to that, he was Dean of the Faculty of Advocates for two years. He was born in Dumfries and educated at Kirkcudbright Academy, the University of Edinburgh, where he graduated with an honours degree in law, and Balliol College, Oxford, where he took a postgraduate Bachelor of Civil Law degree.

31 January: Shirli Gilbert, ‘Displaced Jews: Renewal in the Shadow of the Holocaust’

Between 1945 and 1950, Allied-occupied Germany became the temporary home for over a quarter of a million surviving Jews. In this ‘waiting room’ of history, the world witnessed the most extraordinary renewal of Jewish life and culture. How do we understand the power and vitality of this rebirth, and what lessons might it hold for our Jewish lives today?

Shirli Gilbert is Professor of Modern Jewish History at University College London. She has a particular interest in the Holocaust and its legacies, modern Jewish identity, and Jews in South Africa. She holds a D. Phil in Modern History from the University of Oxford and was a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan. Before coming to UCL, she was Karten Professor of Modern History and Director of the Parkes Institute for Jewish/ non-Jewish Relations at the University of Southampton.

14 February: Tony Kushner, ‘Not quite a nice Jewish boy: Jacob Harris, triple murderer, Sussex: 1734’

We tend to think of Jews as victims rather than perpetrators in early British Jewish history. Whilst not denying the deep-rooted nature of antisemitism in culture and in violent manifestations, this talk will also reference what might be called the ‘tough Jew’ tendency in the world outside the law and where integration in the criminal underworld was perhaps the norm. In the spring of 1734, Jacob Harris (or Hirsch) murdered in the most bloodthirsty way imaginable a publican, his wife and his servant. He was caught a little later some distance from the crime scene, found guilty and hanged in Horsham and then his body sent to Ditchling Common to be gibbeted. Surprisingly, there seems to have been no antisemitism associated with the murders at the time and subsequently Jacob Harris became a folk hero in this area of mid-Sussex. This talk will explore how Jacob Harris came to be in Ditchling Common – was he, as memory of him insisted, a pedlar, or was he a smuggler or a highwayman (or, indeed, all three)? It will ask how he has been imagined and remembered subsequently in ballad, fiction and local history and how we can try to make sense of his Jewish identity.

Tony Kushner is Professor in the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations and History Department at the University of Southampton. He has written widely on the British Jewish experience, especially social history and comparative migration. His most recent books are The Battle of Britishness: Migrant Journeys since 1685 (Manchester University Press, 2012) and Journeys from the Abyss: The Holocaust and Forced Migration from the 1880s to the Present (Liverpool University Press, 2017). He is currently working on a study of Jacob Harris, a Jewish triple murderer and, with Dr Aimee Bunting, Co-Presents to the Holocaust. He is co-editor of the journal Patterns of Prejudice and deputy editor of Jewish Culture and History.

21 March: Hadley Freeman, ‘House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family’

When Hadley Freeman found a shoebox filled with her French grandmother’s treasured belongings, it started a decade-long quest to find out their haunting significance and to dig deep into the extraordinary lives of her grandmother, Sala, and Sala’s three siblings, Henri, Jacques and Alex Glass. Addressing themes of assimilation, identity, and home, this powerful story of the past explores issues that are deeply relevant today. A moving memoir following the journey of the Glass siblings throughout the course of the twentieth-century, House of Glass is a thrilling account of love, loss, family and belonging which Hadley will address in her talk.

Hadley Freeman is a columnist and features writer for The Guardian. Born in New York where she spent her early years, Hadley’s family subsequently moved to the UK. She has published several books and written widely on fashion, Hollywood, current affairs and antisemitism.

25 April: Lord Dyson, ‘A Life in the Law’

Lord Dyson will talk about his European/Jewish roots, his childhood in the Jewish community of Leeds in the 1950s and his career at the Bar and on the Bench culminating in his being appointed a Justice of the UK Supreme Court and Master of the Rolls. He will give some insights into the art of judging at both trial and appellate level and will describe some of the challenges faced by judges. He will also discuss the important question of whether the power of judges is now too great and has expanded to the detriment of Parliament.

John Dyson was born in 1943. He was educated at Leeds Grammar School and Wadham College, Oxford (where he read Classics). He was called to the Bar in 1968, became QC in 1982, appointed to the High Court of England and Wales in 1993, the Court of Appeal in 2001, Supreme Court 2010 and Master of the Rolls and Head of Civil Justice 2012. He retired in 2016. He has returned to his Chambers where he practises as an arbitrator. He was Treasurer of Middle Temple in 2017. He has published Justice: Continuity and Change (2018) and his memoir A Judge’s Journey (2019).

16 May: Naomi Gryn, ‘André Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just: Can there be Beauty in Barbarity?’

Naomi Gryn revisits The Last of the Just by André Schwarz-Bart, first published in France in 1959. Schwarz-Bart’s debut novel was a literary sensation; it won the Prix Goncourt, sold more than a million copies and was translated into 20 languages. Based on the Kabbalistic tradition that in every generation 36 righteous people save the world from destruction, The Last of the Just is a magical realist interpretation of Schwarz-Bart’s wartime experiences, and an act of mourning for the senseless slaughter of Europe’s Jews, including his own parents and brothers, deported to Auschwitz when he was 13 years old. In 2019 Naomi made a documentary for BBC Radio 4 – The Last of the Just: Finding Beauty in Barbarity – travelling to Paris to walk in the footsteps of the novel’s main character, Ernie Levy, and to meet the author’s widow, Simone, an eminent author in her own right, and their son, Jacques, a jazz saxophonist. His recent album – a tribute to his father’s memory – draws inspiration from both his parents’ past – the Voodoo faith of his mother’s African ancestors and chants from the Jewish liturgical heritage of his father’s family. The programme is still available on BBC Sounds https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000dnd7. Naomi will examine why this haunting, sometimes heart-breaking elegy for the innocence extinguished by the Holocaust is still so urgent and compelling, and why, despite the book’s enormous success, Andre Schwarz-Bart disappeared from public view.

Naomi Gryn is a writer and makes documentaries for radio and TV. Born in New York, she lives in London and has worked across the film and television industry. She has written articles, reviews and short stories for many publications as well as co-authoring and editing her father’s (Rabbi Hugo Gryn) memoirs, Chasing Shadows for Viking/Penguin (2000) and Three Minutes of Hope: Hugo Gryn on the God Slot for Continuum Books (2010). She is contributing editor to The Jewelry Icon and chairman of The Essayists, a group of writers that meet to study essays.

30 May: Naomi Games, ‘Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means: The Life and Work of Abram Games’

Abram Games (1914-96) was one of the 20th century’s most innovative and important graphic designers; producing some of Britain’s most enduring images, which are a now a fascinating record of social history. His career spanned 60 years during which he produced hundreds of posters as well as stamps for Britain, Jersey and Israel, book jackets and emblems, including those for the Festival of Britain (1951) and BBC Television (1953). Other clients included British Airways, the Financial Times, Guinness, Shell and Transport for London. During World War II he was appointed Official War Poster Designer. It was Games’ personal philosophy of ‘maximum meaning, minimum means’ that gave his works their distinctive conceptual and visual quality.

Naomi Games grew up watching her father, Abram, work in his studio in the family home. She studied graphic design and has written and illustrated many books for children. Since the death of her father in 1996, she has organized numerous exhibitions on various aspects of his work and of his contemporaries. She lectures both in the UK and abroad, writes on design and runs the vast archive of Abram Games, which remains accessible to all. She has co-produced a film and has written six books on her father’s work.