What is a Jewish Space?

Posted on August 2, 2008 in Default

Dani Kranz submitted her PhD on the creation and maintenance of the liberal Jewish ommunity in Cologne, Germany, to the University of St Andrews, Social Anthropology Department. Her current research work is tentatively called the Jewish Spaces Project. This article represents her current findings and impressions on Jewish London as a researcher. Dani would very much appreciate your take on what she is writing. E-mail her at

Jewish spaces

There are two central issues in this work so far. One is the idea of a Jewish space, the other one is that of the boundary of a space. What is a Jewish space? Is it a space that Jews dominate? Or a space where Jews participate and do Jewish things (whatever these might be)? Are non-Jews allowed into a Jewish space? What kind of Jews are allowed into a Jewish space? Where are the inner-Jewish boundaries, and where are the boundaries to the non-Jewish surrounding? Does the space have to be actual, physical, or can it be virtual? What are the overlaps between actual and virtual spaces, and how do they influence each other? And finally: what motivates people to participate in the spaces? Those are roughly the questions I had in mind when I set out to conduct interviews, and in best ethnographic fashion, participate in the spaces.


The term spaces is a problem in itself, as one of my interview partners outlined “I don’t like the term spaces! But you seem to like it!” Was the term space only my construct? And what was behind it? My idea of space for the research project was that of a physical space where people gather for an occasion, an event, or get together of all sorts. Some of the spaces, like the London Jewish Community House in Willesden are of a more permanent quality, others, such as the parties organised by Jewdas or Psychosemitic or interfaith events such as those of Alif Aleph or MUJU will only be a Jewish space for a night, through the people and their actions that are taking place right in the space. For a short period of time, they will give it the quality of a Jewish, or at least Jewish dominated space.

Finding spaces

I heard about Jewdas for the first time in an article in The Guardian after the Punk Purim party in 2006. I was living in Edinburgh at this point in time, and desperate for any bit of the vivaciousness of London, I was badly homesick. Now, not only being curious but being a social anthropologist who had worked with Jews in Germany for the past four years, I decided to contact the author of the article who immediately put me touch with one of the Geoffrey Cohens, a Jewdas representative. Jewdas seemed to so different from anything I’d seen during my research in Germany.

Jewdas was the first group of people I found in London that was to become part of what I now termed Jewish Spaces Project. Through the Jewdas webpage I came across a Psychosemitic event last summer, another rather more transient space, publicly active for only one night at a time, though the people behind it were of course active behind the scenes. Because I could not figure out who to approach about research, had had a couple of drinks, and at the end of the day it was a party and I was yet unsure about when and if I was going to conduct research in London, I decided the safest way to learn about Psychosemitic was to contact the photographer who had his webpage emblazoned on his t-shirt. Unfortunately, I never managed to talk to him about his impressions, but he put me in touch with the person behind Psychosemitic who happened to be his friend from university days. So far so good, and potentially so boring for you to hear how an ethnographer tries to learn about space, place, and people they are not familiar with. At the beginning was the ethnographic approach like anthropologists have used them since the early days – by approaching potential participants and learning from them about connections. Then came the social utility that made for much quicker, much more, and much different access to the spaces in the field and the individuals who populate it, or so I thought for a while: Facebook.


“Facebook revolutionised my work!” I was told by the marketing person of Israel Connect. A youth worker for Jeneration and the marketing person of the Jewish Community Centre were equally as enthusiastic about it. Facebook seems to make marketing quicker, hipper, and easier, it helps to break down the boundary between work and play, and offers a new way of maintaining and managing contacts, it allows for access to people who otherwise would not have been reached. Plus, for researcher me it’s close to Eden because it shows me the list of friends, mutual friends, events and so on that people attend. It is like the network data that usually takes ages to collect at the tip of my fingers. Admittedly, people can see as much about me as I can see about them, which I think is only fair. Some of my friends for this very reason refuse to use Facebook, on the occasion I feel compelled to send messages to my friends stating that I use Facebook for research purposes and am not really “Proud to be Ashkenazi” as one of the groups I am a member of is called. Yet to go back to my original point, Facebook has made it so much quicker and easier to see what is going on. My news feed would inform me what people were up to, and with I could find out about new groups, and potential spaces without putting much time or effort into finding them, or having to rely on a gatekeeper. Soon I began to wonder how much the groups in Facebook, which I will call virtual spaces, and actual spaces overlapped. And how accessible were they, to whom, and whom did they attract? Could social utility influence real life? Or did it work vice versa?

Who was there?

To figure out the influence of the virtual world on real life it was key to figure out how far the connectivity goes. Who were the people who joined groups, how were they linked, and what events did they attend (as opposed to say on Facebook that they were attending and not show)? As it turned out the degrees of separation between the people who attended were rather small, and most of the attendees knew each other through mutual friends or acquaintances, by this token, most had similar background in terms of education, class, inner-Jewish group, or religious practice.

Much rarer were those who actually turned up for an event because they had actively searched for it. In my own researcher mode I had overlooked this feature completely. I had been searching for groups, people, and spaces actively, and had trawled through listings of groups to find out what was going on in London, as researcher I joined groups that as a private person I would not have any relationship with. People usually don’t do that: they go to an event, a gathering, or a party because a friend of them goes or because somebody tells them, because the event is something they relate to. It is less common for somebody to search actively for any group or event because they desperately want to do something Jewish and if they did they would search according to specific personal parameters. The few individuals who did that besides me were incomers to London without pre-existing connections, and had not grown up with a native knowledge of the Jewish structures in London. London Jews on the opposite would only turn up because they had heard about an event and maybe came if it was close by if they did not know anybody and were driven by extreme curiosity. This was very rare though. Nobody I met so far ventured outside their own perceived in-group, be that Ashkenazi, Sepharadi, defined by religious practice, or any other ideology. Indeed as Keith Kahn-Harris’ told me, the idea behind New Jewish Thought is to get Jews talking who have different attitudes towards Israel and Zionism. Apparently, interfaith dialogue is easier than an inner-Jewish dialogue between Jews who hold different ideologies.

Boundaries of the spaces

The marketing guys and me had experienced Facebook as revolutionary but is it indeed? By observing both virtual and actual spaces it becomes quickly clear that people who attended more often than not had known each other form pre-Facebook days, and that word by mouth still was the most powerful tool of marketing. Then there was the mere chance knowledge about an event. To give you an example some Israelis turned up at the Humus Competition, which was run jointly by the JCC and the Humus Brothers. Now Israelis usually don’t turn up at what they perceive of as Diaspora events. I inquired with the two Israelis present how they heard about the Humus competition. Number one told me that his Hebrew students had not turned up for their lessons and that out of boredom he had browsed all brochures available at his employers’ place. Number two told me that he works in a Jewish crèche and picked up some leaflets to see what is going on. In the same breath he mentioned that in Israel “I’ve never done anything religious. I’m much more Jewish here.” The sole reason that brought them to the humus competition was that they connected humus with being Israeli and reckoned there might be more Israelis around. Both had relocated to London less than a year ago. Asked if they had ever looked for Jewish events they denied. Jewish events were of no interest to them, while Israeli events were. Those now can only be located with insider knowledge: various Israeli groups on Facebook in Hebrew or English, and Ba’London have only very little information on where actual cool parties are. The Israeli party for Yom Ha’Atzmaut was in a pub in North London, knowledge about it worked by word by mouth. Israelis might be stark example. The behaviour of the Israelis probably struck me because it is congruent with the behaviour of Israelis in Germany – which is highly striking as Britain and Germany have very different Jewish communities.

To come back to my initial point of boundaries what struck me was that inner-Jewish boundaries were reified through social utility in London. Social utility did not act as to break down boundaries, or only for those who want to break them down, but effectively moved the boundary management to a different level. Ashkenazim and Sepharadim in London remained separate, and only very few Sepharadim come to Ashkenazi dominated events or places. I would guess the same holds true for Ashkenazim who don’t go to Spharadi stuff. I have met exactly three Sepharadim in the Ashkenazi spaces so far. Why this is, I don’t know yet, I had long debates about this issue with various interview partners and friends, and we came up with a number of reasons. I am working on my access as a researcher to Sepharadim in London.

But not only London Ashkenazim and Sepharadim remained separate and do not participate in each others’ virtual or actual spaces the same goes for Israelis as I mentioned before. Even within the institutional structures, say Liberal Judaism this is an issue. Tent for example runs Tent Ba’Ivrit where the Israeli official pulls in Israelis. Jews from Germany who have immigrated to London in the past ten years stay amongst themselves, again some similarity in the boundary management to Germany. As they are my second research project at the moment I have a number of theories. They complained about the “arrogance of British Jews who think they’re something better. They’re like Jews in Germany ‘before’” several Jews from Germany told me. I have no idea who they encountered my own experiences with British Jews do not resemble theirs. If anything British Jews were curious about my background as my accent even after all of these years gives away my own non-British origin immediately. Yet, this arrogance or perceived foreignness is maybe one reason to remain within ones in-group. Yet, French Jews stay amongst themselves as do Argentinean Jews. A key worker for liberal Judaism thinks that is because there are enough of them around “they do not need anybody else.”

To conclude, social utility seems to have moved the management of inner-Jewish boundaries to a new level. Yet, theoretically it does open up the option to break down those very boundaries. Why these boundaries are so keenly maintained I’m unsure about, I have a number of ideas in my head, but they are, obviously, my ideas, and thus as subjective as anybody else’. It might be that we’re witnessing a phenomenon in London now, which resembles what several anthropologists have described for Israeli Jewish society. In several of their publications Moshe Shokeid, Shlomo Deshen, Andre Levy, and Fran Markowitz (to name just a few) outlined the boundary management of specific inner-Jewish groups in Israel such as Tunisian, Moroccans, or Russians. Going by this logic the boundaries between the different Jewish groups in London might not be bad at all, but hint at a strong and diverse Diaspora in London, which is not shy to voice and show their heterogeneity, and integrate or segregate to an extend that makes individuals and groups feel comfortable.