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Prof. Geoffrey Lewis Tells His Jewish Story

Prof. Jeffrey Lewis

Prof. Geoffrey Lewis tells his family's Jewish story and his recollections of Jewish life in Oxford. This account was originally given as part of the 2007 'Oxford Jewish Memory Day' held with the Oxford Jewish Congregation.

Prof. Geoffrey Lewis

Tell us about your family's Jewish story and how they came to be in Oxford?

I came in 1938 for entrance exams and interviews and I got a place in St John's college and there I was until 1940 when I left because the RAF wanted me -- because in my childish youth had wanted to fly......... I was sent to do radio and for the next four years I did that. When I came back I had only taken the first exam in classics and I didn't want to carry on with it but I had learnt Turkish by myself during the free time in the RAF and so I came back and specialised in Turkish. The oddity was that all of us when we came back from the war were told that we were all B.A. without even having completed the course - if we had been away three years we were M.A.

What does being Jewish mean to you?

Being Jewish in Oxford doesn't mean anything special in Oxford -- it is important to me, not as a religion. I don't know when I last went to a service. I know when it all went wrong -- when I was about 14 or 15 when I sat next to my dad in shul and there Chronicle which was about the only Journal where you would learn what the Nazis were doing and I couldn't take that; if G-d really loves us then why are these people being murdered? And I think that is when I started to abandon it. But our son was bar-mitzva and our grandson

Do you have any special memories of Oxford Jewish life?

Well Cecil Roth was a very dear friend and his wife. She was very hospitable -- but she bought the first freezer -- no one else had one -- and she would give you terribly old stuff that she had put in the freezer; and on a Saturday afternoon everyone was welcome -- and once I had this sandwich and I really couldn't eat it and I was advancing on this tree and I saw my daughter coming from the other side of the tree and we both buried the sandwich. She was very generous, Irene Roth, but she didn't understand that food got bad even in the freezer. And once we were there for dinner and after we wanted to go and Irene said no she had to take my wife upstairs to decide what she would wear for the Garden party next week; and when she came down Cecil said "I think I'll wear my bifocated trousers" -- and he is right all trousers are bifocated. He was a great man. The Roth's parties every week were like a social gathering for the Jewish community.

And Isaiah Berlin was a great man -- except he talked too fast; in English, and in Hebrew I was told. And I remember one day I crossed the road to St. Anthony's for lunch and he waved to me and there was a guest with him and Isaiah said you know Russian don't you and I said I can read it but I need a dictionary, and he said good and every single word after that was Russian. The guest I could just about understand but I had no idea what Isaiah was talking about.

And there was a joke going round Oxford and I asked him if he had heard it, and he said "No". Well it was that you, Isaiah, were at the Cafe.

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