Mutiny in the East End;Books

8th October 1999 at 01:00
ARE YOU STILL CIRCUMCISED? By Harold Rosen. Five Leaves Publications pound;7.99

Harold Rosen's 13 autobiographical stories about growing up in the pre-war Jewish East End make a little gem of a book.

Rosen, a former professor of English and education at London University's Institute of Education, has meditated so carefully about the way language both reveals and conceals truth, about the contradictory and corroborative role of shared memories, that each incident represents much more than itself.

Seemingly trifling anecdotes - about pinching toy soldiers from Woolworth's, choosing Latin at grammar school, misbehaving during a detention or visiting a rich Communist lady - send down deep tap-roots into the domain of culture, morals and learning. Rosen uses a discriminating mixture of tones, blending casual reminiscence, Yiddish idiom and scholarly irony into a flexible, potent style.

He is a diligent recorder of life in the old London three-decker schools, "like Bastilles" with their fearsome headmasters and occasionally mutinous pupils. He also dispels any notion that the Jewish community was homogeneous; there are imperialists and comrades, pious barmitzvah boys and dissidents like Rosen himself, tucking into a ham sandwich.

He emerges at times as smart, ashamed, dutiful, confused, cruel, angry and thoughtful. The palpable absence of his father is dealt with subtly and honestly.

The publisher has put "Jewish interest" on the cover, but it's really for anyone who's ever used language or been a child.

Tom Deveson

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