The king of ping.. and prose! Howard Jacobson on Jews and table tennis

The latest Jewish News

Read this week’s digital edition

Click Here

The king of ping.. and prose! Howard Jacobson on Jews and table tennis

As JW3 launches its first Ping Pong Festival, we hear from the acclaimed author about his love of table tennis and why it’s one of the only sports Jews are good at

Fiona Green is a features writer

Howard Jacobson
Howard Jacobson

“My attitude to sport is very simple – it’s something that Jews just don’t do,” quips author Howard Jacobson.

The Man Booker Prize winner appeared in conversation with sports journalist and author Anthony Clavane to mark the opening of JW3’s Ping Pong Festival last Sunday night.

The Finchley Road venue’s two week celebration of table tennis – which originated in Victorian England – coincided with the opening of this year’s Olympics in Rio.

On stage, a ping pong table stands resolutely beside Jacobson and Clavane, as they discuss the relationship between Jewishness and sport, as well as the author’s obsession with table tennis growing up in 1950s Manchester – a fanaticism that inspired his semi-autobiographical novel, The Mighty Walzer.

His 1999 novel, which won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing, was recently adapted for the stage and performed at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.

Author Howard Jacobson and his wife, Jenny
Author Howard Jacobson and his wife, Jenny

Clavane, author of Does Your Rabbi Know You Are Here? The Story of English Football’s Forgotten Tribe, questioned Jacobson on how table tennis is perhaps the only exception to the stereotype that Jews can’t play sport.

Jacobson recalls: “I went to a grammar school in the north of England that was 15 percent Jewish. None of my Jewish friends played any sport, no football or rugby. “The whole business of playing games was a nightmare for me and I went through school with a note in my back pocket from my mother saying I was bilious.”

Conceding that sport did not come naturally to him and his peers, he adds: “If you fell over, you’d bleed and, unlike gentiles, Jewish boys did mind when they bled. So the minute I got interested in table tennis, my mother was excited, because she couldn’t see what harm I could come to.”

Jacobson describes table tennis as an unusually intellectual game and jokes: “You could play table tennis and still be a doctor – it’s like chess in shorts.”

However Clavane suggested it was a “myth” that Jewish boys were not into the physical side of the sport.

“Is it not to get out of the shell of the ghetto that Jews did get into sport, like football and boxing?” he asked.

Jacobson, in his light-hearted manner, remained unwavering in his position.

“Maybe it was just Manchester Jews, but I didn’t know a Jewish boxer, I never met a Jew that wanted to play a sport, and the only Jew I ever met who did was me and that sport was table tennis.”

The game is one, according to the 73-year-old writer, that appeals to the “Jewish imagination”, relying on having to use your wits and read your opponent on a psychological level.

Table tennis
Anyone for table tennis?

Jacobson (and his character Oliver Walzer) excelled with the help of his now legendary forehand chop and back hand flip.

He won multiple awards, was the Manchester junior champion, played for the Lancashire juniors and was a Cambridge Blue.

But the sport changed when the bats altered from the original wooden version to a rubber one, thereby losing what Jacobson describes as their “plunk” sound – something he feels added a “music and wit” to the game.

Speaking about his formative years growing up in Manchester, Jacobson referred to this time as a golden age not just for Jews, but everyone.

“Nobody had much money and that was a good thing – the greed that was to characterise our society had not yet shown itself.”

The prizewinning writer, who has been married three times, added: “We also didn’t have the curse of the internet. One day the world will say the worst thing that ever happened to civilisation, worse even than the Jews, was the way social media enabled the mob to feel it has a voice.”

While to some degree he looks back at his younger years through rose-tinted glasses, Jacobson believes the Jewish community has always struggled for acceptance – and will continue to do so.

This theme is one that Jacobson touches upon in his most recently-published book, Shylock Is My Name, a reimagination of Shakespeare’s infamous character from The Merchant Of Venice.

“Is a Jew ever accepted?” he asks.

“I don’t feel I am accepted and even if this country suddenly became Jewish, I wouldn’t be accepted either, so non-acceptance is part of the deal. Can Jewishness ever be acceptable to the world now?”

With reference to the reoccurring ping pong nightmare that Jacobson often has, whereby he hits a ball but it keeps coming back, Clavane suggests this was a good metaphor for the anti-Semitic tropes that keep reoccurring, no matter how often the community beats them away.

Nodding in agreement, the author concludes: “I don’t think Jews can ever relax and I don’t think the world will ever be a safe place for Jews – but this is something that has kept us very agile and capable of producing marvellous things, because we know we always have to.”

• JW3’s Ping Pong Festival continues until 17 August. Details:


Support your Jewish community. Support your Jewish News

Thank you for helping to make Jewish News the leading source of news and opinion for the UK Jewish community. Today we're asking for your invaluable help to continue putting our community first in everything we do.

For as little as £5 a month you can help sustain the vital work we do in celebrating and standing up for Jewish life in Britain.

Jewish News holds our community together and keeps us connected. Like a synagogue, it’s where people turn to feel part of something bigger. It also proudly shows the rest of Britain the vibrancy and rich culture of modern Jewish life.

You can make a quick and easy one-off or monthly contribution of £5, £10, £20 or any other sum you’re comfortable with.

100% of your donation will help us continue celebrating our community, in all its dynamic diversity...


Being a community platform means so much more than producing a newspaper and website. One of our proudest roles is media partnering with our invaluable charities to amplify the outstanding work they do to help us all.


There’s no shortage of oys in the world but Jewish News takes every opportunity to celebrate the joys too, through projects like Night of Heroes, 40 Under 40 and other compelling countdowns that make the community kvell with pride.


In the first collaboration between media outlets from different faiths, Jewish News worked with British Muslim TV and Church Times to produce a list of young activists leading the way on interfaith understanding.


Royal Mail issued a stamp honouring Holocaust hero Sir Nicholas Winton after a Jewish News campaign attracted more than 100,000 backers. Jewish Newsalso produces special editions of the paper highlighting pressing issues including mental health and Holocaust remembrance.

Easy access

In an age when news is readily accessible, Jewish News provides high-quality content free online and offline, removing any financial barriers to connecting people.

Voice of our community to wider society

The Jewish News team regularly appears on TV, radio and on the pages of the national press to comment on stories about the Jewish community. Easy access to the paper on the streets of London also means Jewish News provides an invaluable window into the community for the country at large.

We hope you agree all this is worth preserving.

read more: