What Jew talkin’ ’bout, Willis?

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Nov 092011
Super Jew

The history of the Jews in England is mixed at best. Jewish settlements date at least to the Norman Conquest, but by 1218 papal England required Jews to wear a stupid hat. A deteriorating situation reached its nadir when King Edward I issued the Edict of Expulsion in 1290.

On the other hand, a beleaguered but tolerant England sheltered Jews fleeing the Nazi grip on the continent. Today with over 300,000 Jews, England hosts the second largest Jewish population in Europe. The roots run deep and love is a two-way street: Jewish immigrants gave the English their iconic fish and chips.

The artifacts of this complicated relationship spanning a thousand years are at times poignant or hilarious, and always interesting. Even the street names are shadows of a storied past: Old Jewry, Jerusalem Passage, Jews Row, and today’s special guests, Jewry Street and Jews Walk.

I plan to visit the remainder and photograph them as well. In the meantime, if you know of another Jewey street, do share.

Jewry Street, City of London

Jewry Street, City of London

Jews Walk, Lewisham

Jews Walk, Lewisham

Four Points per Squid, M’Lord

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Apr 162010
Boots advert, Christmas 1913

Boots the Chemist is an English icon. Spend a day in London and you cannot miss the ubiquitous sign of white cursive in a blue oval. As it happens, Londoners tell me, Boots also has an excellent customer loyalty program (programme?) in the Advantage Card. I journeyed online to sign up — four points per £1! — and discovered in the Title field the most incredible menu (see Figure 1).

Note that after Lady and Lord comes the mysterious acronym, RH. This Yank suspects it stands for Royal Highness.

Boots Advantage Card Registration Form

Figure 1: Lord Cohen gets a Boots Advantage Card

[Update 17-April-2010] Miss Anky, my host and frequent London guide, suggested Right Honourable, an honorific title reserved for prime ministers and barons, as an alternative meaning for RH. However she did not discount my earlier Royal Highness theory, so the true meaning remains a mystery.

Mar 312010
Union Jack

It has been eleven days since the Heathrow immigration officer stamped my work visa, thus affirming my expropriated Englishness. For the annals, the food here is better than reputation and, tracking over the past decade, is improving steadily. Of course while the arc of history may bend towards refinement, Britain’s culinary graces have a ways to go still. Not a fortnight in and I might well kill a man to steal his bottle of Tapatío.

Meanwhile, I am striding through Week II at Lab49. My demonstrably smart London colleagues have welcomed me into the fold but nevertheless share a consternation that I would leave San Francisco to join them. This confusion (and shock, is it?) prevails among Londoners at large, who are strikingly pessimistic about their charming metropolis and cannot grasp Johnnys-come-lately. One amiable Scot here at the Lab (we will call her Agnes) adores America and has a particular fascination with my City by the Bay. Now, Agnes loves her native Scotland and lobbies heavily on behalf of Tunnock’s Teacakes. (Verdict: delicious but painfully sweet.) She is neither cultural turncoat nor dewy-eyed Americaphile. All the same, when we struck up conversation about her last trip to San Francisco, she revealed unusual yearnings for the Red, White & Blue.

To be sure, both Britons and Americans rigorously enjoy dissecting the peculiarities of cross-pond customs and regional dialects. (Pick up some dish soap at the chemist, please.) However Agnes took us beyond typical small talk by describing her first trip to Walmart. Sure, at Walmart you can buy a shotgun, tractor and cantaloupe under the same roof, but that’s not what enchanted our Scot. Walmart, her walls dripping with Post-its and Sharpies of every conceivable color and size, fulfilled an as yet unknown stationery fetish deep within Agnes. Where a UK shop carries standard Sharpies in black, red, and blue, Walmart in her glory offers Sharpies long and short, thin and thick, retractable and chiseled, twin-tipped and laundry-safe…and in a rainbow of colors, plus metallic. Agnes has a fever, and the only prescription is more Sharpie.