Agnostic author Anthony happy to see himself as culturally Jewish

By Doreen Wachmann

ANTHONY Ferner is not a practising Jew. Yet his recently published novella, Winegarden, is full of specific Jewish references.

The book describes Talmud study and Gateshead Yeshiva, Birmingham's Singers Hill Synagogue, the length of shofar blasts and the Hebrew letters which went into creating the Golem of Prague.

Winegarden is the story of a Jewish agnostic who is a thought experimentalist.

He seemingly thrives on uncertainty, not only about whether or not there is a God, but also about whether or not his wife is faithful to him and, more crucially, the uncertainty of not being in touch with his own buried emotions.

I was intrigued to know to what extent the Jewish aspects of the book were autobiographical.

Anthony and his twin brother, Robin, were born in Sarawak, Borneo, where their father was working in an oil refinery.

When the twins were 10-weeks-old, his father moved the family to The Hague and later London.

Anthony told me: "I was brought up reasonably Jewish. My mother kept a kosher home. We went to synagogue.

"After a long tour around different parts of England and Holland for my dad's job, we ended up with eight years in north London."

The family attended Southgate Synagogue, particularly around the time of the boys' barmitzvahs. When their parents returned to Holland, the twins went to Carmel College for the last four years of their education.

Anthony continued: "When I was 15, it suddenly came to me that all the praying, going to synagogue and putting on tephillin, which I did as a teenager at Carmel, I didn't believe any of it.

"I might have called myself an atheist, but then I read Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, which enraged me so much with his dogmatism and sneering tone.

"I was not going to call myself an atheist. I am an agnostic. I don't know whether or not there is a God. I hate certainties, whether they are religious or anti-religious.

"However, I have huge respect for people of faith, particularly for those who do good works because they are driven by their beliefs.

"I am enormously impressed by people from pretty well every religion, who make a difference to the world and to their fellow people. That is admirable. That is something that Dawkins totally fails to see. He only sees the dark side of religion.

"I admire people of faith who reach out to others including those of different faiths. I notice that the Manchester and Birmingham Jewish communities do that."

He added: "I see myself as very culturally Jewish. When our kids were young, we always celebrated Passover, usually with a service with my brother and his family.

"My wife is Jewish. Our kids have been brought up with knowledge of a Jewish heritage. But I am not a practising Jew, certainly not a religious Jew. I don't go to synagogue."

In the book, Anthony provides a graphic metaphor of the "self-hating Jew" as Winegarden's colon is being scanned for a cancer investigation.

Watching his innards on the computer screen, Jacob Winegarden thought: "Is this what it means to be, literally, a self-hating Jew?

"When part of your Jewish guts turns against itself and becomes something other and gentile. Is it your reward for not eating kosher? For all those Spanish hams and chorizos. Those lobsters you gorged on. And now your body is consuming your body."

I asked Anthony whether the term "self-hating Jew" resonated with him personally.

He denied that he was racked with guilt over his lack of Jewish observance, but he is conscious of being labelled as such over his ambivalence over the actions of the state of Israel.

He said: "I find myself torn. Anyone who says anything critical about Israel is immediately tarnished as antisemitic. You should not have to be called a self-hating Jew.

"I am very wary of the people who won't allow any criticism of Israel. If you do, they say you are a self-hating Jew.

"But on the other hand there are antisemites masquerading as anti-Zionists and you don't want to fuel them."

Anthony admitted: "Writing the novella has been a way of me exploring my own Jewish identity. It has always been there, but never articulated."

But he is very worried about the Jewish future.

He said: "All Jews feel that somewhere or other there are dark forces out to get us.

"In the book, Winegarden quotes Seville and Salonica as great thriving Jewish communities which were in harmony with many different cultures and religions for hundreds of years and suddenly darkness fell.

"I have that strong feeling today that the fate of the Jews is linked with a Europe not at ease with itself."

Having lived and worked in Holland, France and Spain, and feeling himself very European, Anthony is very concerned with the current state of the continent.

In fact, his next two books concentrate on that theme.

Small Wars in Europe is set in the near future in a Europe crumbling at the edges.

Again the protagonist of this novel is a Jew, a Spanish naval officer who has recently discovered his Jewish Sephardi origins.

Anthony said: "I wanted to bring in the Jewish theme because it is so important in this notion of Europe not being integral and ill at ease with itself."

Anthony's other forthcoming book is called The South.

Anthony's first career was as an academic, researching how multinational companies operate all over the world.

He told me: "Since my early 30s, I have tried to do something creative besides my work to give me another angle on life rather than be just one of these workaholics.

"In the early days I did art, etching and collage. Then I realised that I wasn't as good as I needed to be for the things I wanted to do so I started writing."

He has been writing on and off for 20 years in one form or another.

He said: "I started writing film scripts with a friend. We never got anything made, which was why I turned to writing fiction.

"The odds on getting a novel published are slightly better. I wanted to do something creative, so I started writing novels."

Winegarden was first published as a short story, entitled The Cat It Is That Dies, in the anthology, The Sea in Birmingham.

© 2015 Jewish Telegraph