Director Mike Leigh is on London stages now with Two Thousand Miles, his first ever “Jewish play.” Linda Grant in The Guardian talks to Leign about his Jewish heritage and why it hasn’t surfaced in his work until now.
It was a kosher home, though they only went to synagogue now and again and they drove on the sabbath. “But it was very, very Jewish. My grandparents were immigrants – they talked in Yiddish – and there were some outreaches of the family where there were genuine frummers [Orthodox].”
It was a time, he points out, when many Jewish families were anti-Zionist, and there was a wave of post-war anti-semitism in the north of England. After the Zionist militant group, the Irgun, kidnapped and murdered two British sergeants in Palestine, there were anti-semitic riots and Jewish shop windows were smashed in Manchester and Liverpool. But in 1960, like many Jewish teenagers, he went with Habonim to Israel for the summer, and hitchhiked there on his own the following year. Nevertheless, when he became a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, he consciously escaped his Jewish identity because, as he writes in an introduction to the play, he was escaping being stereotyped; having so many other possibilities closed down. This seems to be a peculiarly British dilemma that does not afflict American Jews; in the US almost everyone comes from somewhere else. To be British is to have to suppress where you came from, to pretend you always came from here.