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Dame Vivien

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David Russell speaks to Dame Vivien Duffield about her philanthropy, the Jewish values she inherited and the realisation of her latest vision, the Jewish Community Centre for London, JW3


Arriving at the unassuming offices of Dame Vivien Duffield, in West London, you would not be aware that the Clore Duffield Foundation, which she created out of the merger of the Clore Foundation, inherited from her father, and the Vivien Duffield Foundation, which she set up with her own money, is the leading funder of the arts and culture in the UK.

I enter through a small corridor, at the end of which, are double doors into a large and airy office. Stepping though them, the importance of the woman I am here to meet becomes apparent. It is the walls that give it away. They are adorned with awards and honorary degrees, from the array of institutions in the UK that she has supported through the Clore Duffield Foundation, as well as Israeli organisations that the Clore Israel Foundation in Jerusalem, which she also chairs, has funded.

Despite her reputation as a no-nonsense, straight-talking matriarch of the arts, I found Dame Vivien to be welcoming and even a little cautious. She does not give many interviews, preferring instead to let her actions speak louder than her words. However, as our talk progresses, her boundless enthusiasm for philanthropy and the arts, and a sustained connection to her Jewish roots shines through.

It was from her father that she developed the passion and responsibility for philanthropy, interest in the arts and Jewish values. Charles Clore was a self-made man, establishing his name and wealth through an array of retail ventures, notably the department store Selfridges and the once ubiquitous high street store brands of the British Shoe Corporation. He was to become equally well known as one of the great scions of philanthropy and in particular for his support for Israel.

Dame Vivien knows little of her father’s upbringing in London’s East End. He was born in 1904 to parents who had recently emigrated from Riga. “They came with nothing except a sewing machine, as his father was a tailor. But no one even knows the original family name. He never talked about his past.” This may be due to the difficulty of his childhood. His mother died when he was very young, and his father soon after moved to Israel, where he lived out the rest of his days.

Charles visited his father only once in 1927, and did not return to Israel until he had a family of his own, 30 years later. At the invitation of Sir Isaac Wolfson, they stayed at the Weitzmann Institute. This experience inspired his support for the Institute and other Israeli causes.

By that time, Charles had separated from his wife, Francine Halphen, who he had met soon after the war. Though they had two children, Vivien and her older brother Alan, the marriage did not survive. “She missed France, and returned there. She was much more cultured, from a wealthy Parisian Jewish family. Her father survived the trenches, emerging from the First World War as a decorated Major. But he made a promise to himself that he would never have a cold meal or do a day’s work again, and rigidly stuck to both those. So he was not a great role model.

“However, my mother had a good education, at the Sciences Po, and she was awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery in the Second World War, driving an ambulance for the resistance. Her brother survived Auschwitz and testified at the Nuremberg Trials and her sister had a terrible war too. But they rarely spoke of their experiences. That was true of her generation, more so of those that lived through the occupation in Europe.”

It was Charles who brought up the children, and from whom Dame Vivien believes she has inherited many of her traits. “He was very philanthropic and always very generous, loved the arts, and had a great eye for it.” He also was very protective of his only daughter. After she completed her undergraduate degree at Oxford University, he forbade her continuing her studies in the USA. He also stymied her hopes of following him into business, believing that “the boardroom was no place for a woman”. He was very much a typical Jewish father of that time and no doubt this played some role in Vivien marrying young. Though it was the fact that she was marrying out that aggrieved him more.

It was from this first marriage to John Duffield, who was to become a wealthy financier, that she has two children, Arabella and George. Her marriage did not last, on which she comments “it is possible to enjoy a successful marriage, family life or career, but near impossible to experience all three.” Of her children, she is evidently proud. But her children were not brought up Jewish and she regrets not passing on to them the values she received from her father.

“I am terrible in that respect, as I am passing on almost nothing of Jewish life to my children. However they are very aware of their Jewish roots. George has spent the past five years making an IMAX movie about Jerusalem, which is due out in September and will be screened by National Geographic. He also spent time studying at the Hebrew University. And Arabella has studied at the Weitzmann Institute, and now sits on their board.”

Many institutions have benefited greatly from the beneficence of Dame Vivien Duffield. But two in particular have her to thank for their very existence.

It was on a visit to the children’s museum in Boston, USA, that Dame Vivien had her first eureka moment. She was determined that the UK should have its own hands-on exhibition for children, a place that celebrated both play and learning. She realised that vision in 1992, having committed most of the funding required to establish Eureka! The National Children’s Museum – located at the suggestion of Prince Charles, in Halifax in Yorkshire.

Many questioned the location, chosen in an economically deprived area to serve as a catalyst for regeneration, but it has benefitted a huge number of young people in the north who would never have got to a London museum. Living in Leeds at the time I remember the thrill of such a stunning museum arriving on our doorstep. Now it has 250,000 visitors a year, an impressive number for a regional museum that charges for entry (as Dame Vivien strongly believes all museums should).

Dame Vivien hopes the success of this venture can be replicated with JW3, the Jewish Community Centre (JCC) for London, the second UK institution that owes its conception to her uncompromising vision.

“I had built several community centres in Israel, including the first Arab community centre in Ramallah. I then heard that they were building a Muslim community centre in the UK, and I thought there is no reason we should not have a Jewish community centre too.”

“I was speaking about this to my good friend Julia Neuberger, and she said that I must visit the JCC on the Upper West Side in New York. Together we did. It is spectacular, and as soon as I walked in I immediately wanted to build one for London. That was exactly ten years ago.”

Many questioned whether the JCC model, so well established in North America, could be adapted to the UK, or whether there was a need for such a project.

“It has been a long, hard journey, but we are getting there. I will be full of ideas of what it could be doing. I want to make sure that it reaches more than the Jewish community, for it to be used by the local community too. The first few years will be very experimental. We do not know what the demand will be, how we will use the piazza. But it is exciting times ahead.”

She hopes that its success will exceed all expectations, in the size and diversity of its audiences, in the quality of its programmes. And that, like Eureka!, JW3 will confound critics of its location. It is not in the Jewish heartland of Hendon or Golders Green, nor in the cultural hub of Central London. It is on the busy Finchley Road, across the street from the Camden Arts Centre and Dame Vivien is convinced this will work for it.

Such stubbornness has served her well. Few philanthropists have given away as much of their wealth, or as greater proportion of it. It is estimated that she has donated over £300 million through her Foundations over the last 40 years. Most impressively she has helped to raise many multiples of that, most recently leading a one billion pound fundraising campaign for Oxford University and, most famously, in her former role as trustee of the Royal Opera House, helping to secure over £100 million to build its current home in Covent Garden. And at almost every gallery and museum of note in the UK today, from the British Museum to the National Gallery of Scotland, you will find a Clore Learning Centre.

This partly accounts for her decision, to spend down the funds in her Foundation, as “Israel needs the money now, as who knows what will happen in ten or twenty years there.”

As to her children “They are both into philanthropy, but I doubt they will follow me into supporting Israeli causes as they have their own pursuits. I don’t think it’s fair to burden the next generation with the responsibility of pursuing the aims that you want to pursue. You have to give them the wherewithal to do their own thing. So you have to do what you want to do yourself whilst you are alive.”

She would like to see a more pluralistic and less polarised society in Israel but is deeply pessimistic as to whether that will ever be realised. However, she is encouraged by the indications of a greater engagement in philanthropy in Israel.

“Though Israel has less of a tradition of philanthropy, that is beginning to change, albeit slowly. Around 10% of donations to the Weitzmann Institute is now from Israelis, which has been a significant development. However, they still have some way to go. The small number of very wealthy families should be giving more.”

It is this responsibility to give, which she inherited from her father, and has driven her own philanthropy, and notably that of her children too. “Simply, if you have money, you have a duty to give.” However, she notes that philanthropy is evolving too.

“Jewish philanthropy is still huge. But I don’t know about the next generation. It is not that they are less generous, but they do not like giving to established charities. They like doing their own thing. Also, if you think how much people spend on their art, it would not kill them to give a bit more to arts charities, for example.”

For many years hence though, it is likely that the Clore Duffield Foundation, with Dame Vivien at its helm, will continue to lead and inspire ever greater philanthropy. I am intrigued to know whether there will be any other landmark campaigns that she will personally spearhead now JW3 has opened its doors.

“I do not know what the next challenge is. I haven’t worked out what I want to do next. But there may be one last project.” So watch this space!

First published: Jewish Renaissance Magazine, October 2013 Issue
For more information on Jewish Renaissance, please visit:

Written by thesocialenterprise

October 8, 2013 at 2:43 pm

A Baron’s Vision

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David Russell talks to newly created peer Maurice Glasman about the ‘Blue Labour’ ideas he derived from Jewish tradition

Maurice Glasman, now Baron Glasman of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill, intrigued me from our first meetings. These were in 2006. We had both been invited to the Faith and Citizenship Training programme at the St. Ethelburga’s Peace and Reconciliation Centre in the City of London, I as a member of the local Jewish community, along with local Muslim and Christian leaders; Maurice to lead a series of sessions on community organising – identifying and acting together with others to pursue mutual self-interest.

Erudite and enthused, Maurice Glasman would roll up cigarettes from the tobacco pouch which would emerge regularly from the side pocket of his corduroy jacket. During the breaks, we would talk about the history of the Jewish community of the East End, as I was then based in Bethnal Green and Maurice was living in Stoke Newington and working in Aldgate.

Campaigns that we worked on together with TELCO (The East London Communities Organisation) focused on calling for a cap on exploitative interest rates amongst financial lenders (as laws on usury exist in all three Abrahamic faiths) as well as agitating for a living wage, the minimum income that is required by a worker to meet their basic needs – also a value that is shared across all three faiths.

This extracurricular practice blended seamlessly with Maurice’s academic interests at the time, as Director of the Faith and Citizenship Programme at the London Metropolitan University (LMU) and Senior Lecturer in Political Theory. As an acolyte and international authority on Karl Polanyi, the Jewish Hungarian-Canadian political economist who authored The Great Transformation, which documents the evolution of today’s market society and the incumbent dangers of capitalism, Maurice has always propounded a leftfield view on the politics of the day.

The perspectives that he advocated then never made front page news – and he didn’t expect they would ever do so: “I have never had any ambition. I have never had a conventional career path. I have always done what I felt was right at the time.” His elevation to the House of Lords in 2010 came as a complete shock.

Born in 1961 In Walthamstow, and brought up in Palmers Green, Maurice Glasman won an exhibition to study Modern History at Cambridge, and after several years as a jazz trumpeter, moved to Florence where he wrote his PhD on Polanyi and then became a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s European centre in Bologna. On his father’s death in 1995 he returned to the UK, where he took up teaching at LMU.

Maurice with his father

He became involved in community organising through a friendship with the Chaplain at LMU, William Taylor, reinforced by his involvement in the Labour Party, of which he is a lifelong member. It was through this work that he began to develop his theory on how faith and citizenship can check the free market.

“You need a wall of moral traditions, such that you can find in faith and citizenship, to resist the domination of the market. If we are to not live in a world of walled rich people, we must have a democratic commons of association.”

It is this concern with association, with power, with resistance to the market, which led him from Polanyi to organising, to Labour strategist. “Labour has become very statist, very policy-based, quite technocratic and elitist in lots of ways. The idea of giving power to people to make their own mistakes, to build their own lives together, is being a bit awkward but resonates”. What he means, is that politicians today are more averse to mass democracy than ever before, including Labour, which was traditional the party of the people.

It is this position, which has led Maurice to conclude “that Labour can be a transformative party but it has to redistribute power and not be exclusively concerned with the redistribution of wealth.”

It was the provocation of Phillip Blond’s ‘Red Tory’, a call to the Conservative Party to reclaim its community values, which sparked Maurice into developing a counter-manifesto that called on the Labour Party to rediscover and re-engage with its core values of “reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity”, some of which had been hijacked by the Conservative Party – most notably in its conception of the Big Society.

It was this manifesto that brought Maurice’s thinking to the attention of the newly elected Labour leader, Ed Miliband. Miliband saw this political philosophy, which Maurice coined as ‘Blue Labour’, as no less than a foundation upon which to rebuild the Labour Party.  It was for this reason that he was elevated to the House of Lords.

Maurice has left his fellow Lords in no doubt about his Jewishness, a trait that is unusual amongst the Jewish peers.  Yet one aspect that Maurice did not publicise until he talked at the South London Day Limmud this May is the inspiration he has found in Jewish thinking. He cites the concept of Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th century German rabbi, of Torah im derech ertz, which emphasises the importance of worldly involvement to realise the values of Torah.

Also key to his ideas is the philosophy of the Bund (Secular Jewish Socialist Party) in pre-war Russia and Eastern Europe. “The Bund was concerned with the beautiful things that we do together – music, literature, art – and fostered solidarity with the poor of the world. Hirsch represents the conservative side and community, such as the honouring of parents and children and a moral concern to build genuine relationships, as Jeremiah teaches: ‘seek the peace of the city for in its peace shall you have peace’.”

“Blue Labour is equally Hirsch and the Bund. The Bund adds a focus on building relationships with others, building a common life with strangers, and of creative exploration.”

Out of this evolves the foundational campaigns of community organisers, as well as Blue Labour.

“The Living Wage is core to the menschlichikeit (integrity) that unites Samson Raphael Hirsch with the Bundists; that you should pay people enough for them to live. It used to be called a Family Wage, which was a core demand of the Jewish trade unions in the East End.”

“Just because Jews are on the whole no longer poor – in that we are no longer cleaners, cooks, dustmen – and that we have found our way up the housing ladder, does not mean we no longer have interests in people being paid properly or in the good of the city.”

It is this conviction that has driven Maurice to work to engage Jewish institutions in community organising in the UK, to play a more active role in working alongside Christians and Muslims in developing broad-based campaigns for a living wage and affordable housing.

It is clear that Saul Alinsky, the Jewish academic cum activist who developed the practices of community organising in 1930s Chicago, is very much an inspiration for Maurice too. “I realised that many of the great community organisers were Jewish, but Jews were not organised. But what I see all the time is that there is a deep longing in Jews for a good meaningful life and for a better life, which will be never-ending and will never end.”

It is this that he believes the Jewish community, particularly in the UK, has managed to get so right over the years. “Society as the association, as the kehilla (congregation), needs leaders and leadership and practices, such as the minyan (quorum of men at synagogue). This is the meaningful conception of the community – self-organised institutions. And the impulse to lead a good life and to lead others in that good life that is a very distinctive Jewish trait that I do not think is going to go away.”

This love of self-organised institutions, as vehicles for association, has been fostered since his childhood.

“I was brought up in the bowels of the Jewish community. I grew up in Palmers Green. I attended Clapton Jewish Day School (now Simon Marks) and JFS (Jews’ Free School). I was involved in the Jewish scouts, a Jewish Jazz Big Band. My family comes from a tradition of Orthodoxy and Labour, which once was a lot more common. My father was a Labour Zionist. And there were three institutions when growing up, that every Jew I knew supported: the United Synagogue, Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and the Labour Party.”

It is a renewal of such institutions that he wants to see in the Jewish community today. This, he believes, will renew the Jewish tradition of genuine civic engagement.

“The concept of the kehilla (congregation) is very dear to me. Jews should make the effort to go to shul on Shabbos; make the effort to meet other Jews and to talk to them, and to do things with Jews that Jews do together, which is politics, make music, make friends, and argue all the time – and to keep Jewish life strong. It will flow from that. The stronger our Jewish institutions and practices, the stronger our civic engagement will be.”

Maurice leads by example, attending regularly different minyanim, including the new Stoke Newington Masorti Synagogue that he helped establish, as well as being actively involved locally, particularly in Jewish education – as Vice-Chair of the Governors of Simon Marks Jewish Primary School, which all four of his children have attended.

Pirke Avoth (Ethics of the Fathers) calls on us to make ourselves a teacher; which I always understood to have three meanings: to be a teacher; to find yourself a teacher; and, to build educational systems and be a teaching people. In that Jews have always excelled. And for that I love the Jewish educational system, not only because of the care of the child but because of the love of learning, and we must value Jewish schools as real treasure troves of that tradition.”

What then is he teaching his children?

“To be menschlich, which means being nice to your mum. Be as horrible as you like to me, but be nice to your mum. I share that as a general maxim of life. And just do the thing that feels right. Be with the person that you love. And, don’t get bullied, and don’t get defeated, as life is surprising.”

It was as much a surprise to receive the call informing him of his nomination to the Lords, as it was when an interview that he gave a few months later to the Fabian Society magazine became front page national news. In the interview, Maurice noted that the Labour Party should seek to engage with disaffected communities such as those that were voting for the English Defence League (EDL).

“Unfortunately, the comments were misconstrued. I was saying that we needed to speak to the supporters of the EDL, not, as some people made out, that we should speak to the EDL itself. The idea that we should speak to upset, angry and dispossessed people, to try build a better life together, must be addressed and historically the Labour movement has been the vehicle to do this. It is a broad-based approach. Where there are mass outpourings of discontent, you have two choices, either you demonise them or you break them.”

“My view is the latter, in that we have to create divisions within the EDL.” By creating divisions between the leadership and membership of EDL, the hope is that it will be possible to bring back into the traditional Labour fold the predominantly working classes that have become disillusioned and excluded from mainstream politics leading them to the radical fringe.

It is this call for engagement with the radical fringe, which has led Maurice into trouble not only with the Labour leadership, but also the Jewish establishment too. In the same manner, the Jewish Chronicle has criticised him and London Citizens for engaging with Muslim communities that also have a radical fringe.

“The people I call the liberal elite have a big difficulty in engaging in democratic politics. We have to find a way to engage poor people, which is both locals and immigrants, in a democratic discussion in which they can speak. But a bit like the Jewish Chronicle on the State of Israel, they want everybody to sign up to a politically correct ideological position before they can say anything.”

But ultimately, it is this building of relationships, bridge building, which is at the heart of his politics.

“I love my country and I want to build and broker a politics of the common good, which can bring together immigrants and locals, working class and middle class, north and south, faith and secular, a common good which upholds the dignity of the human being and the power of association against the overwhelmingly powerful markets. I love that, and that is my politics. And what is amazing is that I am in a position to fashion such a thing.

So what has he learnt then over this whirlwind couple of years. “That it is impossible to engage in serious politics without being misunderstood. The misunderstanding is an important part of politics. And, you shouldn’t let your position get ahead of your relationships. Relationships precede action, so I take a great deal of time just meeting people, talking to them.”

This is the advice that he is giving to his four children, who are beginning to follow their father’s lead by being politically active, his son considering his father’s politics to be “bourgeois outrage”. However, they are drifting into internet activism, of which he continues to be sceptical. “I am like the grumpy old dad telling them to go out and to meet some people.”

What other advice does he give to them?

“Before you get angry, have a conversation with the person. Meeting people, doing things together, is the best thing in the world and is transformative. Foster a love of England, a love of Yiddishkeit, and a love of the Labour movement. If I could do that, I will be happy.”

About his time in the House of Lords, he notes that “out of 700 or so lords, about 120 are Jews. A third of High Court judges are Jews. This is the golden age of Anglo-Jewry and sometimes we should take pause and recognise that the country is completely open to us and what we do – which is get into trouble, be busy, have arguments, do our jobs properly, and to be a blessing to the country.”

There is still much work ahead for Baron Glasman in doing his new job properly, as he advises the Labour Party on its strategy for victory in the next general election, likely in 2015, “which is not a straightforward task”. And if Labour is to win, then it will need to secure the support of the Jewish community the ‘bellweather’ for the country.

“Jews are very independently-minded people and if Labour represents liberty and compassion, Labour will get the support of the Jewish community, but if we represent State spending and an administrative view of politics we won’t. Labour has not yet articulated any vision that can generate any enthusiasm, which is what we need to do. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”

As we part ways, Maurice comments finally: “I never expected to be in this position. I never planned to be in this position. But I trust the story.” How that story will unfold, and how he will be a blessing to the country he loves, only time will tell.

First published: Jewish Renaissance Magazine, October 2012 Issue.
For more information on Jewish Renaissance, please visit:

Written by thesocialenterprise

October 4, 2012 at 4:46 pm

The Benefactor

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In the second of our series about Jewish philanthropists in the world of art DAVID RUSSELL has the rare opportunity to meet NASSER DAVID KHALILI, collector of Islamic art and one of the richest men in the world

Professor Khalili (c)Terry O'Neill

I meet Professor Nasser David Khalili at his office in Mayfair, on the top floor of a building shared with a fashionable clothing brand. Beautiful young people come and go through the lobby in which posters of exhibitions of Khalili’s collections are on display.

I am shown to the lift, but there is no button to press. The concierge waves a fob and the doors close. When they open again, I see Professor Khalili across a beautifully adorned, airy office. He is sitting behind his desk. There is no anteroom, no secretary. I am fortunate to have secured a rare audience with one of the richest men in the world.

Raphael Fuchs / Shirin Neshat

Around the room is a host of intriguing works from Khalili’s personal collection. They include a contemporary photograph of two arms upstretched, one with tefillin wound around it and the other etched with Arabic calligraphy. This is no doubt representative of Khalili’s two great passions, Judaism and Islamic art.

He has in front of him a copy of my article, in this series on benefactors of the arts, about Elizabeth Sackler (JR, October 2010). “I knew Arthur, Elizabeth’s father, well. A great man and a great patron of the arts, who truly left his mark. It is good to see Elizabeth extending that legacy.”

As Elizabeth Sackler is synonymous with feminist art, Khalili has become synonymous with Islamic art. He has endowed Chairs in this field at his alma mater, Queen’s College in New York, where he received his BA, and at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, where he was awarded his PhD. There is also a Khalili Research Centre for the Art and Material Culture of the Middle East at Oxford University.

Khalili also has smaller but equally distinguished collections of Swedish textiles, Spanish metalwork, Japanese decorative art and enamels of the world. Adding his property interests, managed through his company Favermead, currently developing an innovative energy-efficient 220,000 square foot office block at Holborn Viaduct in central London, his worth is estimated as more than £5 billion. Not bad for a selfmade man from Iran.

Khalili was born in 1945 in Isfahan and brought up in Tehran by parents who were not fabulously wealthy but, according to their son,“rich in spirit”. His father was an antiques dealer and it was from him that Khalili developed his own love of art, often accompanying him on home visits. On one such trip, the young Khalili was wowed for the first time by an artwork, a lacquer pen box. It was given to him by its owner who was moved by his interest and it became the first piece in his collection.

In 1967, after completing his national service as an army medic, Khalili left Iran and travelled to the US to study computer science. It was in New York that his collecting first began, as a means to pay his way. He only resorted to collecting art professionally when he was fired from his job flipping burgers. Within two years he was a millionaire.

He would travel across the country buying up lots of work, keeping only the best and selling the rest. His skill lay in his eye and knowledge of Islamic art acquired from his father and his own study of the genre since childhood, though he admits that he was lucky to begin collecting when there was such a glut of good pieces.

He settled in the UK, which has been his home since 1978, after meeting his wife, Marion, on a visit to London in 1976. Marion was working in an antiques centre, and he knew on first sight that this would be the woman he would marry – if she was Jewish. He bought from her a brooch for his mother and an emerald ring and bracelet, which he gave to her.

Khalili always knew that he would wed within the religion. “The issue is very simple but because people follow their emotion, it is often overshadowed.” As he often does, he explains his position through a quote. “I always follow a beautiful biblical saying, used in Fiddler on the Roof. To paraphrase, when a bird falls in love with a fish, it is all okay; but where are they to go and build a house to live?”

In the early 1990s, Professor Khalili bought 18-19 Kensington Palace Gardens, which previously housed the Russian and Egyptian Embassies. It was this that first propelled him into the public domain, as the renovation he oversaw for the next three years created a residence equal in size to the White House, and second only to Buckingham Palace in London, and seemingly as grand with marble imported from the same quarry in Agra as the Taj Mahal. When finished, their children, Daniel, the eldest, and two twin sons, Benjamin and Raphael, had flown the nest, and as Bloomberg has reported, Marion refused to move into the house, considering it too “palatial”.

“I run a very democratic family, and my family has a huge say in what we do. I have a saying that if you are in a crowd and you do not know where to go, put your child on your shoulder and they will point you in the right direction.” He compares his family to a secure home. “Myself and the three boys are the columns, and my wife is the roof. Any weakness will bring the house down.”

The house of Khalili though is constructed on strong foundations. 18-19 Kensington Palace Gardens is still the most expensive private residence in London, now owned by the Indian steel tycoon, Lakshmi Mittal. It is one of the many records Professor Khalili holds, of which he is evidently proud. These include being the longest-serving governor on the Board of SOAS (for 17 years); the youngest published author in Iran, at just 13 years old, when he wrote a compendium of 223 geniuses, a response to ridicule from a teacher at his Jewish day school for aspiring to be one himself; and, most famously, the custodian of the largest private collection of Islamic art in the world, in addition to collating the largest publication in art history, which will catalogue the 20,000 artworks in 27 volumes.

The secret to his success? “You dream, you plan, you pursue. If you don’t do that, you don’t get anywhere.” He adds: “In every field in which I have collected, I became an expert in the field before I collected.” This and a famously retentive memory have helped him to assess better than anyone the value of the art in his chosen fields.

Though amassing his collections is his life’s work, he has still to realise his most long-held dream – a dedicated museum for his collection of Islamic art in London. He reveals to me, exclusively, that this will happen before his 70th birthday in 2015.

“Many great collections have become dispersed because they did not think about how to maintain a museum. But we are working to establish a large enough endowment to secure our museum in perpetuity.”

Though I do not ask, I assume the museum will be named the Khalili Museum of Islamic Art. I note that each project he funds inherits the Khalili name. Is this the legacy that he wants to ensure? “I am not here to be praised. The praise should be reserved to go to the souls of the artists who have produced the magnificent works. I have just been lucky to be able to put them together for humanity.”

He tells me that it was the University which offered to give his name to the lecture theatre he funded at SOAS. “They insisted on there being a bust of me made to sit outside the theatre, alongside which there is a beautiful Japanese vase for which I give fresh flowers to be arranged every day.”

Though no longer a governor of SOAS, Khalili continues to teach at the controversial hotbed of anti-Israel sentiment. I ask whether he ever has difficulties with the politicised students there. He has not personally experienced any antagonism. In his view “religion and politics have their own particular languages, and their own agendas. Art and culture are unique in having a universal language; ‘it is an ocean without shores’.”

Sharing the art he has collected with humanity is his mission. “I hate telling people I am here to educate you. I am here to inform you and to allow you to form your own opinion. It is my philosophy.” He refers to the need to learn about others’ way of life as being the philosophy of Maimonides, which he follows, “because by learning about it we will find there is more that unites than divides us.” It is for this reason that he set up the Maimonides Foundation, to foster dialogue and understanding between the Abrahamic religions.

This is a view he shares with Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, with whom he has a “special relationship”, and who is a mentor to his children and an inspiration to him. “I consider the Chief Rabbi one of the greatest brains in the history of Judaism.” At Rabbi Sacks’ request Khalili funded the refurbishment of the Bloomstein Hall at the Marble Arch Synagogue.

Unlike many other billionaires, he has not offshored his great wealth. He takes pride in paying his taxes, believing it important to play a full role in contributing to the economic well-being of his adopted home. “I am a good advocate, because I talk to other wealthy people who try to avoid taxes and tell them to use their energy for making money and not to waste t avoiding taxes.”

Though he identifies first as an Iranian Jew, he is proud to be British too. “I am extremely fond of the UK, its tradition and its contribution to humanity.” He is proud also of his Iranian heritage. “Iranian Jews are the oldest Jews in the world and Iran has been a cradle of democracy since Cyrus the Great. Empathy has always existed between the Jews and Muslims in Iran. If anything, the way that Jews have been treated by the Muslims in Iran should be used as an example.”

Khalili continues to support the Jewish community in Iran, “but under the radar, as I learned from my parents, G-d bless their soul, that you should do things not for the heck of it, but for the sake of it.”

It is this value that he hopes to have instilled in his children. He does not plan to pass down all his wealth to them. “I wanted to ensure that my kids had an education, that they had independence and can follow their passion like I did. If I do more than that, I will dilute their mission in life. I want them to live and look forward to something and to achieve their own thing and get credit for it.”

Professor Khalili concludes the interview with an appeal. “Don’t concentrate so much on me, but concentrate on the art. I wish to shed light and understanding on how people run their lives. Each time I give an interview I want to have a message: the role culture can play in the betterment of people’s lives. There is no better bridge-builder. If I can change the life of even one person, then I will have succeeded.”

And what of his plans once the museum is established? “I plan to write my autobiography, but not for another 10 or 20 years.” This will be quite some story, of the Jewish man from Iran and his plan for the world’s greatest collection of Islamic art.

First published: Jewish Renaissance Magazine, October 2011 Issue.
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October 23, 2011 at 7:53 am

The Matron of Feminist Art

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Arthur M. Sackler, along with his two younger brothers Mortimer and Raymond, made his fortune in pharmaceuticals. Between them they donated to many of the world’s leading cultural and academic institutions. In fact it is hard not to take note of a Sackler Wing or Sackler Center. There is one at the National Gallery in London, the Smithsonian at Washington DC and the Louvre in Paris and at Tel Aviv, Oxford and New York universities.

Arthur’s second daughter, Elizabeth, has continued along the path illuminated by her father, and two uncles. As President and Chief Executive of the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, she is responsible for maintaining and lending over 1,000 of the most important works of Asian art collected by her father over his lifetime.


Elizabeth Sackler with her father (Arthur M. Sackler) at the inauguration of The Sackler Wing (Temple of Dendur), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, 1978


However, it is as “matron” of the arts, as she coins the term for her role, that she is emulating her father. Her first endeavour that brought her international reclaim was her pioneering activity in repatriating Native American ceremonial materials.

“Of all the work that I have undertaken, it is the most ‘Jewish’. The return of ceremonial objects, repatriation and restitution, is only a relatively recent phenomena. Questions of Nazi war looting, and the need to return looted art for example, only really came to prominence in the 1990s. Only then did people begin to fully understand the issues.”

“To assist the uninitiated, I equated what a Jew would have felt seeing the bones their grandmother on public display with the exhibition at the Natural History Museum in New York in the 1970s of the human remains of a Native American woman.”

It was this empathy that moved her to act by publicly purchasing three katchina masks at auction at Sotheby’s and returning them to their rightful owners, the Hopi and Navajo Nations. Out of this act, developed the American Indian Ritual Object Repatriation Foundation, which she founded in 1992, and which continues today to educate about the importance of repatriation, and the distinction between that which is appropriate for sale or exhibition and that which is not.

Then in 2001, at a meeting with the Director of the Brooklyn Museum, Arnold Lehman, she presented him with a book about Judy Chicago’s iconic feminist megasculpture, The Dinner Party. Enquiring whether he would like it, he responded enthusiastically. However, she did not mean the book, she meant the work itself. Lehman was stunned.

Elizabeth was first introduced to Judy Chicago in 1988. The Dinner Party, her most epic work, consists of a triangular table 48 feet long on each side, with place settings for 39 notable women from Primordial Goddess to Georgia O’Keeffe, and set on a white floor inscribed with the names of a further 999 notable women.


The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Centre for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum, NYC (credit: Donald Woodman)


Chicago is a pioneer of the feminist art movement who in the 1960s changed her name from Judy Cohen in a move that denounced the masculinisation of her roots. When Elizabeth arranged The Dinner Party’s gift, through the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, to the Brooklyn Museum as the centerpiece for a center for feminist art, Judy’s dream for its permanent housing was realised.

“My relationship with Judy was first a friendship, then a supporter of her work. She had been concerned about The Dinner Party, which had not found a permanent home. In addition to being an extraordinary work of art, The Dinner Party is a unique educational exposition on women’s history – as so many of the women it features are under recognized or not known at all.”

This is the point of connection between her projects – erasure. “The erasure of women in history; and the attempted erasure of American Native history; to that extent there is a common bond between the projects. As a Jew, it is also something that resonates strongly.”

Not only did she offer the work for permanent display but also the gift of a new wing of the museum to exhibit it. “Initially, I had no desire to have my name carved in stone, as it were, but after lengthy discussions with my sister I thought: Well, ‘the boys’ (as my grandmother referred to her three sons, my father and my uncles) have, with all the Sackler Wings here and abroad, created a great launching pad. My name could be a service to raising awareness of women in the arts – to which people might then pay more attention.” Thus came into being the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art – now the pre-eminent (and still possibly only) institute of its kind internationally.

Elizabeth’s interest and passion for art developed at an early age. Her earliest memories were of being taken to museums. “I remember vividly when I was 8 years old being in the Louvre and staring up at the Winged Victory of Samothrace (the classic sculpture honouring the goddess Nike), and being overwhelmed by her beauty and power.” When she was 15, the first Sackler gallery opened, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York – featuring monumental Chinese sculpture that her father collected.

As a Jewish family, the Sacklers placed greater emphasis on the values than the practice of the religion. “There is no question that the world in which I grew up in was one steeped in justice and equality, and that this informed the education I received at home and in my schooling. I cannot speak for my father, or his brothers, but Jewish principles and ethics continue to infuse all my work – both as a social activist and public historian.”

“My father was a true collector, a connoisseur. He did not consider himself a philanthropist though. Giving was not a cheque writing exercise, nor about naming opportunities, but about participating in the cultural landscape which improves knowledge, education, and understanding. He felt it an honour and privilege to envision what was possible, and making that a reality.”

“It has taken me until now [referring to the establishment of the Center for Feminist Art] to know what he meant by that – when you see a vision grow and take hold.”

“What I also learnt from him is the importance of having an intellectual and cultural and emotional relationship with the work that one does. Practically, he taught me how to have a relationship with institutions and how to negotiate with museums.”

It was this that held Elizabeth in good stead in later years.

She recognises that her interest in the feminist movement also can be traced back to her family. Throughout his medical career, Arthur Sackler was a forerunner in acknowledging and supporting contributions of women doctors and nurses and at the height of the feminist movement in the 1970s, he worked with established groups to increase the number of women accepted into medical school and related fields.

“Any father with daughters is likely to become a potential feminist activist, naturally wanting the best for his children. I grew up in a family where sexism did not exist. But I am aware that in the Jewish community there is a tension.”

She recalls the time that her son was preparing for his Bar mitzvah, and she took the opportunity to study too, at Congregation Shearith Israel, the historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York City. Under Rabbi Marc Angel, she became aware of the tension within the Orthodox tradition from the separation of women from the Torah.

“He was struggling with how an Orthodox synagogue, how a man of Orthodox faith, can both acknowledge the role of women, but respect the separation commanded by Torah. It is a difficult area, and though I do not engage in the debate, I do observe it.”

Elizabeth’s son Michael, now 27, along with her daughter, Laura, 37, have made her a proud parent, and grandparent. “As I learnt from my father, my children are watching and learning from me. Laura founded Global Children in 2000, which is dedicated to assisting disadvantaged children in Cambodia.”

“This strong involvement in social causes I observe with my cousins too. Many are very active. Whether we do things on a small scale or a large scale, relationship with the family, betterment of community, is what life is all about.”

Her focus in the immediate future is on the Center of Feminist Art. “It is still just a toddler in terms of the life of a cultural institution. I want to ensure that I give it a good solid upbringing, and that the child – which is how I see it – grows up healthy and strong. The Center is beloved in New York, has increased the value of feminist art and as importantly is influencing museums worldwide to recognise and engage with it.”

Returning to her father, she recalls him first and foremost as a scientist. “His approach to art was scientific, collecting the largest corpus of data with an eye to synthesise information from a variety of places, and produce new thinking. He truly was a genius, a member of MENSA, with a passion for art which he had the fortune to share with the world.”

Arthur Sackler once said, “Art and science are two sides of the same coin. Science is a discipline pursued with passion; art is a passion pursued with discipline. At pursuing both, I’ve had a lot of fun.”

Concluding the interview, Elizabeth mentions that she is currently reading “The Lost” by Daniel Mendelsohn. “As a Jew, one comes across a book on the Holocaust, and the echo of the history of the Jews is such that one is just grateful to be alive, to be a Jewish woman at this moment of time. It is a privilege as my father told me. I take it with great joy. I am pleased and proud.”

First published: Jewish Renaissance Magazine, October 2010 Issue.

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The Dame doing good

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If you ever spend time in Hampstead, it is likely that you will see an electric car emblazoned with green leaves zipping around, with a lady in a colourful dress at the wheel. Or you will see the car plugged in, its battery charging, off a small side street which is the base of Dame Hilary Blume, and the Charities Advisory Trust.

Dame Hilary Blume and genocide widows in Rwanda (with goats from the Good Gifts Catalogue)

Dame Hilary is the charity entrepreneur eminence, creator of initiatives ranging from the Good Gifts Catalogue to The Green Hotel in India, to Peace Oil – an initiative that brings together Israeli and Palestinian farmers on the foothills of the Carmel Mountains to produce Olive Oil. The Charities Advisory Trust, the organisation that she founded in 1979 and continues to direct, is an umbrella for these enterprises and more, and has generated over £100 million in the past 30 years, which is channelled to an array of causes (in full disclosure, of which my organisation, Survivors Fund (SURF), is a beneficiary).

Born in London and brought up in Manchester, Dame Hilary inherited strong values from her parents. “They were very good people, always going out of their way to help others, whether visiting neighbours who were ill, or in the case of a friend of my father’s who went bankrupt, helping him to set up in business again. Though not wealthy, they could certainly be classed as comfortable, but were never ‘showy’ with their money. Charity was just central to their social life, playing in charity bridge tournaments and active in WIZO and the League of Jewish Women.”

Her father, Henry Braverman, was the eldest son of immigrant parents, and left school at 15 to help support the family. “The step he took out of poverty was a far greater step than any I had to make.”

At age 8, she remembers her first experience of fundraising, “shaking a bucket, collecting for the planting of trees in Israel for the JNF.” Her interest in horticulture continues to this day, as a patron of Trees for London and proud winner of the Best Front Garden in Camden Award.

Being brought up in a family in which everyday life would involve helping others when asked, has remained her guiding philosophy today. “People who knew me when I was younger, would tell you that I have changed amazingly little.” She is not afraid to say exactly how she sees it, and how she expects things to be done.

How she has changed has come with the opportunities unavailable to her growing up. “Though I have always been religious, and had an interest in Jewish history, I just never was given the chance to study. It is a wonder now how little I was taught despite having a Jewish education, though that was likely true for most Jewish girls in Manchester in the 1950s.”

That is an opportunity that she now relishes, studying Talmud which she says “is like taking my brain out for a walk.” It is from that study that her philosophy of giving originates. She gives 10% of her income. “My notion of giving a small amount, is much larger than most people, but I think for those that do give 10% they will find themselves naturally giving more.”

Giving is an art, not an exact science, for Dame Hilary. She recognises that, like for many others, it is often guided by sentimental motives, as to what appeals emotionally.  “The reality is that different causes interest different people. Some appeal, some don’t. However generally I give to those that take the trouble of asking, unless I have very strong feelings about it.”

She is Co-Chair of Finnart House School Trust, which helps needy Jewish students in the UK to fund college and university, “an issue that has become particularly pressing in recent years, of which very few people in the community seem aware.” Her involvement grew out of a family connection, as her late father-in-law was the Chairman.

It is on this note, that it becomes evident that Dame Hilary is just one half of a charity double act, as her husband, Michael Norton, is equally prolific. A merchant banker turned social activist, he transformed the charity world by setting up the Directory of Social Change – which today is the leading source of information and training to the community and voluntary sector – and more recently by establishing the unLTD foundation, set up with an endowment of £100 million from the Millennium Commission, which funds new ideas of social entrepreneurs to bring positive change across the UK.

Her son, Toby Blume, is also in the charity world, Chief Executive of the Urban Forum, which supports communities to have a greater say over decisions that affect them. He recently was nominated as the most admired charity chief executive, an award that Dame Hilary believes that she would never win, “Toby is much more likeable than me.”

Her giving to non-Jewish causes is out her belief in supporting the widow, orphan and the stranger. ”You only need a little imagination to realise how hard life is for some people. God’s bounty is not just for us in the West.” Her funding extends from supporting Dalit girls into education and employment in India, to helping genocide widows and orphans in Rwanda sustainably farm (through the charity I direct, SURF).

“These are causes that I was introduced to, and continue to support, as I believe in them. They are helping the needy and vulnerable, as small charities that make a big difference in the lives of many. I believe that once I give money, then the money is out of my hands to control. So it is important that I can trust those organisations I support. Administration is critical to keep a charity going, but too many big charities waste too much money.”

It was through training and seminars that Dame Hilary first began guiding big charities to trade more effectively and the Charities Advisory Trust was set up. Thirty years on it continues to do so.

In concluding the interview, I ask her advice on how we can get more people to follow her lead. “Simple,” she says. “I feel you should ask on behalf of those that have no voice, and to get people to give more, you just need to ask more. People give when asked, and people don’t ask enough. I ask people all the time to give, and they are terribly shocked.”

Her new initiative, is Happy Givers, through which she is planning to support amongst other new causes, the Memorial Scrolls Trust (which repairs scrolls damaged by the Nazis) “because I like Torah.” She recently commissioned a new Torah scroll to be written by Josh Baum (see Jewish Renaissance, July 2007).

Happy Givers aims to encourage young Jews to give more. “Giving brings lasting happiness, not hardship. It should be enjoyable, and sociable.”

First published: Jewish Renaissance Magazine, April 2010 Issue.

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April 28, 2010 at 4:42 am

A Prophet of our Times

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Professor Zygmunt Bauman is a remarkable man; a prophet no less, though he will be the first to deny it.

I must at first declare a bias. Professor Bauman’s seminal text “Modernity and the Holocaust” was compulsory reading when I studied under the next greatest living sociologist on our shores, Anthony Giddens, a decade ago. At the time Giddens had just published what was to become the academic treatise for New Labour, “The Third Way,” elucidating a centrist approach between the old left, and old right. Most important though, the sociological theory – which counted Bill Clinton and Gerald Schroeder, as well as our own Tony Blair as its acolytes – celebrated modernisation.

Professor Bauman has never received the same acclaim. For that, there is a reason. He is a modest man, who lets his writing do his talking. He is the sociologist’s sociologist, who has made it is his mission to ensure that the discipline is accessible to the layman – not just restricting his cutting edge theories to his fellow academics, like so many of his contemporaries.


Professor Zygmunt Bauman in his study at home in Leeds


Sociology in this country does not elicit the same interest as on the Continent, where Bauman is a familiar name in Germany, France and in his homeland Poland. Sociology is the study of society and human social interaction, and Bauman is today one of its greatest living proponents. How then, did this 82-year-old Polish Jew, who fought during the war for the Red Army, come to live in the quiet, unimposing house off the Otley Road in North Leeds?

Preparing to meet Professor Bauman, I felt as if I were back at University. His publisher, Polity Press – home to a stable of leading contemporary European thinkers: Adorno, Bourdieu, Derrida, Habermas, even Primo Levi – had sent me a review copy of his new book “Consuming Life” only three days beforehand, heightening the sense of cramming ahead of a supervision. I dusted down my notes and familiarised myself with his earlier work too.

To understand Bauman, I have always contested – and put the point to him – you must first understand his own story. However, he is notably reluctant to speak about his past, unsurprising considering his book can be read as a polemic against the commodification of a society increasingly confessional. One need only to read the latest posting on the blog of London Jewish call girl Belle de Jour (currently in production as an 8-part ITV serialisation) to appreciate the extent that in the words of Eugene Enriquez, as Bauman quotes, “Physical, social and psychical nudity is the order of the day.”

What we know about Bauman is that he was born into a secular Jewish family in Poznań, Poland in 1925. He says he was “brought up in the kitchen” by his mother, “a woman of great ambition, inventiveness and imagination” who like many at that time was confined to life as a housewife. His father was “a failed shopkeeper, then an unfulfilled accountant,” but was a hard worker who taught himself “several languages and was an avid reader of wide horizons. Above all, he was amazingly honest.”

Learning of the traits of his parents, it becomes easier to understand the values that Bauman evidently holds dear today. I add hospitality as well, as the cup of tea and the plentiful Polish chocolates awaiting my arrival attest. Settling down in the matching upholstered chairs in his study to conduct the interview, it was like been back in my tutor’s room. Books lined the walls, spilling over to rise up from the floor too. The extensive foliage both in the room, and the front garden that the study overlooks, reflects the man – abundant and vibrant, consideringly yet not too carefully cultivated.

The row of miniature urns atop one shelf reminded me of the former Hampstead home of another secular Jewish intellectual, in fact a namesake, Sigmund Freud, seemingly held in high regard adjudging by the fact that he is the most referenced thinker in “Consuming Life” (closely followed by three other assimilated Jews, all German: Marx, Simmel and Kracauer).

This is no accident. Alongside them Bauman is one of the last remnants of a lost civilisation, that of Central/Eastern European Jewry. Its disappearance, Bauman ranks alongside the Holocaust and the Creation of the State of Israel as the three seminal events of last century that will change the course of Jewish History forever.

On speaking about this lost civilisation, “never to be recovered, never to be found again,” Bauman is illuminated. He talks of the “unique philosophy, literature, tradition, way of life” integral to these Ostjuden “whether secular or religious, whose whole lives were saturated in Jewish meaning.” Besides everything else the Holocaust marked, it resulted in a revolution where for the first time there was no centre where Judaism was a hub of life.

As a sociologist, Bauman refuses to predict the future, only to analyse the present. The tremendous impact on Jewish life of this great vacuum he says remains to be seen. He recounts that many in the West prior to the Holocaust were anxious of this “spectre haunting them, threatening to spoil the success of their assimilation.”

Nowhere was this more the case, Bauman stresses, than in Britain where the Board of Deputies infamously advertised to try deter Jews in the East from travelling to these shores, to such an extent that many of the most vocal agitators for legislation restricting immigration (resulting in the 1905 Aliens Act) were in fact Jewish themselves.

It is understandable then that at the outbreak of the war, Bauman’s family escaped East, not West, fleeing to Russia where at the age of 18 he joined the Soviet-controlled Polish First Army. Bauman rose to the rank of Major after fighting in the Battle of Berlin. After the War, he returned home to Poland. This is not so strange as it first seems, as for one who knew no life other than Poland and who was far removed from the atrocities committed there during the Holocaust, it “was not an active decision to return, but a natural instinct; I had nowhere else.”

On his return, Bauman worked for the Corps for Domestic Security (KBW), for which he was awarded the Polish Cross of Valour in 1950. He was dishonourably discharged in 1953, after his father enquired into the possibility of making aliyah at the Israeli embassy in Warsaw. Bauman did not share his Zionist sympathies, and the incident led to estrangement between father and son. Though it would be an event that would determine the course of his life.

During the period of unemployment, Bauman completed his Masters degree and embarked on his academic career, becoming a lecturer at the University of Warsaw in 1954. There he remained until 1968, though he never was appointed a professor due to his criticism of the Communist regime.

Despite this, Bauman has always had a close connection to Warsaw University as it was there that he met his wife, Janina, in a lecture. Within nine days of meeting, he had proposed.

Though they are soon to celebrate their diamond wedding anniversary, she jokes that they are “Poles apart.” Whereas she grew up in a wealthy, cosmopolitan family, he grew up in relative poverty. Her experience during the war was greatly different too, as a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto. However, amongst the many achievements they share in common is acclaim as writers. Janina’s memoirs, recently republished as “Beyond these Walls” by Virago Press, have just been translated into French – a fact that Bauman is evidently proud as he shows off to me the new edition.

I ask Bauman if he ever would consider writing a memoir himself. He recounts the story of Henri Bergman, who deciding against writing his own memoir was so against others writing his biography postmortem that he burnt all his private papers, including his laundry lists. Bauman “agree(s) with him completely” but lets on that he is working on a “confession” of sorts in which his “own private thoughts will be recycled.” Though only an approximation of self-analysis, the book already has the “far-fetched title of The Art of Life, a proper topic for an old man like myself.”

Though I refuse to believe him, he claims that this will be his final book. For the past twenty years he has written on average more than a book a year, all written in English (his third language, after Polish and Russian). Previous to Consuming Life, his trilogy on the liquid modern society – Liquid Life, Liquid Fear and Liquid Times – were all critically acclaimed.

The liquid theory is the foundation upon which he has built his conception of the impact that consumer culture, capitalism and the market has affected all, but most notably social, relationships that are increasingly transitory and exchangeable. A gross simplification of years of work – for which I beg pardon – but the essence being that even we ourselves have become commodities.

This explains to some degree the ‘confessional society’ in which we now live, where each one of us markets ourselves to bring ourselves to the attention of others – whether seeking a job or a partner. I try to argue that faith – particularly Judaism – offers a sacred shield against the all-pervasive absorption of the market into all aspects of our lives. But Bauman points out that even religion has learnt to sell itself – one needs look no further than the Saatchi Synagogue’s rebranding as the “cool shul” to appreciate that.

Arguably, such commodification can also account for the Jewish renaissance in Poland, particularly in Krakow, which is “not a renaissance of anything, but a praiseworthy tourist attraction, clearly a creation of contemporaries.” He likens it to one great museum, and as a purveyor of authentic Polish Jewish cuisine Bauman should know, “even the food there is ancient.” The only remnants capturing some of the original spirit are the cemeteries, evidently spaces he considers sacrosanct living round the corner from Lawnswood Cemetery where he has often sought sanctuary for reflection.

Bauman often returns to Poland on regular lecture tours, on which Janina accompanies him. They originally left the country out of compulsion, not choice, when Bauman was expelled from Warsaw University as part of the Communist antisemitic purge of Jewish academics in 1968. It was a painful experience, as they were forced to leave family and friends and renounce their Polish citizenship to be allowed to leave the country.

By then well established, Bauman accepted a post at Tel Aviv University in Israel, where their eldest daughter Anna (now a Mathematics Professor) had settled with her husband. Though Janina had originally wanted to make aliyah after the war, the relocation was difficult and they left after only three years when Bauman was offered the post of Head of Sociology at Leeds University. Though neither of the Baumans knew anything about the city, this time they made it home and have remained here ever since – despite many prestigious offers, from institutions ranging from Yale to Oxbridge.

The Baumans have two other daughters, twins, Lydia, an acclaimed artist in Lincoln, and Irena, an award-winning architect in Leeds. On discussing the seeds of a Jewish renaissance in Chapel Allerton in Leeds, Bauman proudly tells me that Irena has “just finished building her own practice and home there.”

He is particularly reluctant to prophesise on the future, though he does not foresee an end to modernity and its obsessive, compulsive drive to continue to modernise anything and everything. “Modern society without modernising” Bauman says “is like the wind without blowing, a river that does not flow.” He laughs at Francis Fukuyama who predicted “the end of history” as that will only come with the end of humanity.

It is for this reason that he remains today a committed socialist, believing that society is only as strong as its weakest members. Though still attracted to the Communist dream, he is no longer a party member – its dream is too closely connected to its lie, the pursuit of power. Though disillusioned with the practice, he still owes a lot to its founding father Karl Marx with whom he shares the same motivating force that “social science must serve a useful task, to make society a better place.”

Bauman may deny that he is a prophet in the biblical sense. But I believe that prophesy serves to warn us of the dangers we face in the present, and to teach us to learn from the lessons of the past. By doing so, we are in a better position to predict the future we face.

Together we share a responsibility to not only listen to Professor Bauman, but to act on his teaching, for as Bauman quotes “in Walter Benjamin’s words, echoing the vocabulary of the ancient Hebrew prophets: ‘every second is the small gateway in time through which the Messiah may come.’”

As the interview concluded I did what every loyal student would, and asked for my book to be signed. Any worries that the supervision had been a waste of his time were answered when my book was returned: “To David, with gratitude for your searching, thought-provoking questions. Zygmunt.”

First published: Jewish Renaissance Magazine, Summer 2007 Issue.

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June 7, 2008 at 8:59 am

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