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The 3 Highlights of Jewish Book Week 2015

The 3 Highlights of Jewish Book Week 2015

Picture of Joey Leskin
Updated: 17 October 2016
This year’s Jewish Book Week in London was a wide-ranging and diverse event, featuring everyone from Palestinian lawyers to progressive Rabbis, from photographers to comedians – and contained a selection of big names (such as Maureen Lipman and Jonathan Freedland) alongside newcomers. We profile three of the most exciting presentations, showcasing the diverse span of the festival and its onward legacy.
Image courtesy of Jewish Book Week
Image courtesy of Jewish Book Week

You Say Potato

Bursting onto stage with immediate charisma, David and Ben Crystal wasted no time riffing on their somewhat turgid ‘presenter instructions’, instantly endearing themselves to an audience who may have thought twice after purchasing tickets to a presentation named ‘You Say Potato’. This father and son act are the authors of a highly anticipated new book of the same name, examining the endlessly differing accents and pronunciations of the English language. It is here however, in live form, that their research and exploration really gets its chance to shine.

The early revelation that David, the elder of the Crystals, had once read through every single script of Friends to inform his research adds credence to the scope of their work on linguistics. A full five minute segment discussing the pronunciation of the words ‘schedule’ and ‘either’ was somehow genuinely riveting, as was a monologue of similar length by Ben about his personal history, which slid with spectacular seamlessness through six different accents. Impossible to take your eye off their movement and knowing grins, it was similarly unfeasible to lose aural focus – it was as if they were challenging the audience to identify as much auditory variety as possible, and everyone was hooked.


Ben and David Crystal, Image courtesy of Jewish Book Week
Ben and David Crystal | Image courtesy of Jewish Book Week

Speaking about the progression of the English language, they explored the theme of ‘accommodating’ the listener by adjusting pronunciation, the decline of Received Pronunciation (commonly known as ‘BBC English’), and then focused heavily on ‘accent archaeology’. This is the art of working out how people in the past actually sounded, from the analysis of sonnets, rhyme, and spelling. The presentation concluded with Ben’s epic rendition of Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy in Original Pronunciation – the accent thought to have been spoken in the 1600’s which appears to be a combination of almost every recognisable English accent and yet somehow none of them – and which received an ecstatic ovation from a spellbound audience.

Role playing and bouncing off each other throughout, this presentation about a book resembled a sophisticated comedy double act. Authors are not necessarily good speakers or public figures, often content to hide behind their pens (or in the modern age, keyboards), and therefore not generally expected to produce the same level of insight and appeal in person. In David and Ben Crystal, however, it is evident that they are masters of both trades. Ben said after the presentation that he finds both forms of media exciting yet incomparable – an apt description of both his presentation methods and the opinion of their adoring audiences and readers. The book is recommended, and a chance to see them speak should certainly not be missed either – or is it ‘eether’?

You Say Potato: A Book About Accents by David and Ben Crystal; Macmillan.

Ben Crystal’s production of Henry V in Original Pronunciation for the Shakespeare Ensemble at Shakespeare’s Globe will be touring in late 2015.


Frédéric Brenner, Image courtesy of Jewish Book Week
Frédéric Brenner | Image courtesy of Jewish Book Week

Through 12 Lenses

The dichotomy of presentation styles evident at JBW could not be more pronounced when considering next ‘Through 12 Lenses’ by Frédéric Brenner – the culmination of his nuanced, vast, and unique photography project called This Place. The event was no less charismatic than the Crystals’ but was structured around the presentation of monographs from 12 different artists, who had been sent to Israel and the West Bank by Brenner in order to capture photographs of their choosing.

The unique element of the project comes through in three ways: the total lack of restriction or guidance given to the artists in both location and subject matter; the length of time the photos were compiled in (on average six months, across several years); and the fact that none of the artists were Israeli or Palestinian – indeed, most of whom had never been to the region before.

Curated by Jeff Rosenheim of New York’s MET, the project’s over-arching theme is that of ‘otherness’ – Brenner believes that Israel is a place of others, where everyone is an ‘other’ to someone else. His aim with bringing this variety of artists to such a location was to exhibit a democratic perspective on the region – to re-contextualise it as both a place and yet a metaphor by looking beyond politics and religion.

The photographs themselves range through an almost intangible variety of ideas, styles and subjects. Highlights include Thomas Struth setting his lens on technology and science within the natural landscape; British photographer Nick Waplington (who has an unrelated exhibition at the Tate Modern from March – May 2015) taking family portraits of settlement-dwellers; 77-year-old Josef Koudelka’s images exploring the impact of the controversial ‘security fence’ – not on the human environment but, more unusually, on the natural environment; Fazal Sheikh, a Kenyan Muslim raised in the United States, has taken an array of epic aerial shots of Bedouin communities in the desert, named ‘Desert Bloom’; and Jungjin Lee’s decision to print her entire monograph on rice paper, as is her norm.

This idea of inviting ‘others’ to model the ‘otherness’ in its myriad forms is both stunning and confusing, and as Brenner’s collection currently travels worldwide, it is something that should not be missed – picking up one of the books being the other highly recommended alternative.

This Place: Exhibition Catalogue by Frédric Brenner; MACK available now.

All 12 individual monograph books also available at

This Place has just finished its European Tour and will be at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art May-September 2015; Norton Museum of Art October 2015-Jan 2016; Brooklyn Museum of Art February-June 2016.


Sharman Kadish, Image courtesy of Jewish Book Week
Sharman Kadish | Image courtesy of Jewish Book Week

Synagogues at Risk in the UK?

One would be forgiven for assuming a presentation with this title might be a discourse on the rise of anti-Semitism in the UK, but Sharman Kadish’s intuitive take on Jewish heritage in the United Kingdom is anything but; Kadish’s lecture (and upcoming book) was actually about the physical manifestation of heritage: the buildings.

Not content to see synagogues as purely religious institutions, Kadish takes a journey around the synagogues of Great Britain to view them not in their religious context, but entirely from an architectural and historical perspective. She also performs that rarest of exercises: breaking out of the London-centric point of view that informs so much British architectural exploration. This was pleasingly evident as an analysis of Liverpool’s minaret-infused synagogues and the several south coast Orientalist synagogues ensued.

The talk itself was astute, matter of fact, and informative, rather than fully transporting the audience to the corners of the island, but it did provoke a sense of the unexplored. The second half of the talk concentrated on ‘listing’ buildings, highlighting both the pro’s (preservation no matter what) and con’s (inability to renovate, or to rejuvenate a fledgling community through fresh architecture) of the English Heritage phenomenon.

The highlight of the presentation was undoubtedly her tale of Bradford’s epic Orientalist synagogue. In desperate need of repair, the Jewish community could not muster up enough funding – so the nearby Pakistani Muslim community stepped in. Together, they helped acquire the money needed to save this seminal building, and fostered heartening interfaith relations in the process. This example of architecture, history and culture being able to overcome faith differences served to highlight not just Kadish’s main point but in fact the overall idea of Jewish Book Week: Jewish heritage and culture can be important and relevant for anyone in the UK.

The Synagogues of Great Britain and Ireland by Sharman Kadish; Yale University Press; 2011 edition out now, latest edition due for publication mid-2015.

Visit for more information on how to visit the synagogues.

Also visit to watch and listen to sessions recorded during the festival, for free and without registering.

Joey Leskin