Being a Jewish football fan is a struggle – in more ways than one

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Being a Jewish football fan is a struggle – in more ways than one

Shacharit or Spurs? Amidah or Arsenal? Kiddush or QPR?

Albert Camus, the French existentialist philosopher, said he had two universities: the theatre, and the football. Through playing in his local football team, he learned “what I most surely know in the long run about morality and the obligations of men”. It’s the same for us. In shul on Saturday we learn the morality of the Torah, and on Sunday on the pitch we learn the morality of the team.

Like many Jews, I have two religions: Judaism and football. As long as football is played on a Saturday, they will forever be in direct competition. There have always been compromises: the Jews who run straight from the sermon to the ground; the Jews who hide their iPhones inside their prayer books; and my shomer Shabbat great-uncle, who would muse aloud on Saturday afternoons: “I wonder what time the football is?” Cue turning on the TV for kick off by a less religious family member. There was no day when this Shabbat charade was more important than cup final day.

As someone forced to make the choice between Judaism and football, for me it’s “one-nil to the Arsenal” every time. However, no such choice is required in the cup this year. Instead, it’s City and United fans who have the privilege – they play in the FA Cup final on Saturday 25 May.

Not being able to watch Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-finals was both a blessing and a curse. As an Arsenal fan, and a Jewish one at that, I have kvetching down to a fine art. Matchdays are experiences of the head and the heart – the soaring emotions of a crowded stadium, and the cerebral kvetching sessions in the pub afterwards, complaining joyfully with friends about how Kai Havertz missed another sitter.

While I do love the opportunity to vent my frustrations in a socially acceptable way, projecting them onto players who are better than I could ever hope to be at anything, it comes with its own set of stresses. What I really missed was that feeling of togetherness; one that British Jews are lucky enough to get both in the stadium and in the synagogue.

Jon Freedman

“I think it’s being a part of something bigger than you,” says Jon Freedman, a lifelong Liverpool fan. “A shared experience. It’s knowing that the crowd that you arrive into the stadium with the crowd you’re leaving with – we shared a moment. I think that’s quite a big deal for me.”

Jon, who grew up in a small Jewish community in Southport, Merseyside, applied for a Liverpool season ticket when he was at university. After 20 years, only half as long as Moses had to wait for entry to his promised land, Jon was duly rewarded for his patience. By that time, he was living in London.

“I used to go and watch Southport regularly. About a dozen of us would go to shul in the morning and then meet up again at the ground afterwards. When I moved to London, there was a group of Barnet supporters who had their minyan that would go down there after shul.

“I think it can often feel like a bit of an extension of your family gathering and your community gathering on Shabbat. It’s just the next thing you do after shul. It’s the roast chicken sandwich on your leftover sliced challah that you take to the game. It’s all part of it.”

Aaron Drapkin

Aaron Drapkin grew up as an Arsenal fan in Birmingham. His trips down to London would mean a connection with a bigger Jewish community, and a bigger Arsenal one, too.

“[Football] is another way to express your love for your local area in your local community, which is something that is right at the heart of Judaism as well.”

The discussion element of fan culture is also a big part of the football experience. Aaron also feels a connection between the way Jews talk about Judaism, and the way football fans talk about football. “There’s a joy in discussion and debate, and the perpetuity of the debate, that I really see in the way Jewish people talk about things and the way football fans talk. The debating and discussing for debating and discussing’s sake.

“I feel that deep interest in not just getting to the bottom of things, but also arguing your point is a thing I see in Jewish communities… I resonate with that kind of older Jew that is constantly talking at the family gathering and can’t say goodbye until he makes his last point. I see that with football in the pub as well – that similar kind of like, we’re never going to agree, but we’re going to keep on talking.”

Annabel Weber

Annabel Weber, a Spurs fan, sees the link, too. “I’m a football nerd. Athletic-listening, tactics head. I guess it is parallel [to] the way I sometimes approach Jewish text learning, and then the sit-down discussion.”

And then, Annabel says, there’s the family connection. “I’m a Spurs fan because my dad’s a Spurs fan and his dad’s a Spurs fan, in the same way that I’m Jewish because my parents are Jewish. There’s no choice in it. If there was a choice, I wouldn’t be a Spurs fan.”

In the absence of football-loving parents, and the first-generation to be born in the UK, I had to choose my team. To me, Judaism is the family I didn’t choose, and Arsenal is the family I did. Ultimately, however, they are both families – cultures that I care about deeply and that have made me who I am.

Unfortunately for the local rabbi, my Saturdays are spent with my football family. Annabel sums it up: “It’s the goosebumps. Every time I walk up and I see the grass there’s a moment of, well, awe I guess would be the religious term for it. I don’t get [that feeling] when I walk into shul.”

For Jon Freedman, the buzz of the crowd, “that sense of when a particular song takes hold of the whole stadium, and you can see it going round, and the energy…it’s a similar feeling to the uplift I’ll get from singing in shul. When City faced Chelsea on Saturday 20 April, I had to miss the experience of singing my lungs out in the stands at Wembley. So this time, I saved it for shul.”


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