Tom Rosenthal: ‘I just want to go on pilgrimages for the rest of my life’

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Tom Rosenthal: ‘I just want to go on pilgrimages for the rest of my life’

The Friday Night Dinner actor explains why appearing in Pilgrimage has been such a revelation for him 

Sometimes the Jewish gene is so strong that it simply cannot be denied. Tom Rosenthal is almost the walking, talking embodiment of a Jewish cliche; clever, strangely neurotic, famously funny, prone to introspection – he even has the foreign name and not insignificant schnoz.

As an actor he keeps getting cast as a Jew – from Chicken Soup with Barley at the Royal Court to finding television fame in Channel 4’s Friday Night Dinner. He says a Jewish colleague once joked he was like ‘Larry David from Berkshire’.

But he has never even been inside a synagogue and has only attended one actual Friday night dinner. He’s about to appear in Pilgrimage where he is the closest approximation to a Jew(ish) celebrity. But admits he knows no more about Judaism than he does any other religion.

The son of Jewish sports presenter Jim Rosenthal and the not-Jewish-at-all Newsnight presenter Christine Smith, he was brought up with no religion. But because he seems so Jewish, he even has a well-used and slightly tortuous spiel in which he attempts to articulate his complicated relationship with the religion.

“It doesn’t annoy when people ask me if I am Jewish but it does provoke some worry because I then have to explain this relationship I have with it,” he begins. “I am aware that most people have a categorisation in their head which is you either are or you are not and I kind of sail in this annoying middle ground which I feel needs lot of qualification.

“I have never really considered myself to be a Jewish person but that’s a lot to do with my upbringing and what I was told as a child – and it is slightly in conflict with my surname and my body of work and the fact that I am slightly like a caricature of a Jewish person,” he continues. “I wasn’t brought up in the religion or the culture. When I did Friday Night Dinner, I had to kind of research this idea. A friend invited me to one and it was brilliant – but it’s not something that happened in my family. That’s really bad, isn’t it? Essentially, I didn’t know any Jews growing up – apart from myself, I suppose.” And his dad, of course.

This presents an interesting category – is he a Jewish non-Jew or a be non-Jewish Jew? While patrilineal Jews are increasingly accepted, they are harder to define if they have had no sort of Jewish upbringing. Tom’s heritage includes famed thinker Oscar Levy, his great grandfather, who was the last really ‘Jewy’ Jew in his family.

Tom Rosenthal, Amanda Lovett, Christine McGuiness, Reverend Brignall, Spencer Matthews, Sonali Shah, Eshaan Akbar, Michaela Strachan, at St Winefride’s Well, Holywell

Tom, 36, wonders whether his father’s experience of antisemitism at school is what made him turn his back on the religion completely. At one point he even asked his son if he wanted to change his name to Smith, his mother’s maiden name; it is also his middle name.

“My dad had issues at school, being bullied for being Jewish, and he didn’t want that to happen to me. He had his own issues. And he’s not interested in religion at all; he has no belief in God. He just wanted me to let me make up my own mind. So, I was raised in this household which was not necessarily proud of their Jewish lineage.

“I know that is kind of confusing to other people. I know there are some in the Jewish community who feel like I am denying my heritage or trying to cover it up and that feels very hurtful. I am just being honest by saying I am not Jewish, for all the reasons I’ve laid out; I have a complicated identity.”

Perhaps it was an act of rebellion, therefore, which made him somewhat obsessed with religion. As he tells his fellow Pilgrims, he got the best A Level result in Religious Education in the country and he studied Theology at Kings College London.

And it is why he leaped at the chance to go on a real Pilgrimage for the popular BBC2 programme, which begins over Easter.

He’s accompanied by presenter Michaela Strachan who is atheist, reality star Spencer Matthews (who discovers via the show that Jesus was a real person), presenter Sonali Shah who is a Jain, former Muslim Eshaan Akbar, former Traitors star Amanda Lovett who is Catholic, and former model Christine McGuinness who considers herself more spiritual than religious.

Over the course of two weeks, they travel 220 miles of stunning North Wales countryside as they visit some of the oldest churches in the country.

For Tom, who says he experienced two or three genuinely spiritual experiences on the pilgrimage, it was a huge chance to learn about himself. In one of the last episodes of the three-part series he comes close to tears as he considers the impact of a grief he was barely aware of.

“I was surprised by how powerful the pilgrimage was and realised for the first time that it is a mechanism for processing grief essentially and that is why pilgrimages are such an important part of human history,” he says. “I wanted to connect with a higher version of myself and I think I completely achieved that but I also learned I was carrying something that I hadn’t realised. There was this moment where I burst into tears and it allowed me to process some grief – it doesn’t matter what it was about – and I also left feeling more spiritually connected than I have ever been before.”

In the first episode Christine, who is autistic, as are her three children, mentioned to Tom that she believed he was too as he had so many traits. Since the show finished, he has been pondering whether to get an official diagnosis.

“My head has two voices in it about what to do,” he admits. “Up until Pilgrimage I felt like it didn’t really suit me to get a diagnosis despite the fact that every romantic partner and a lot of close friends have called me autistic; not in a bad way, just that I do have a lot of the behavioural things that people who are diagnosed as autistic also have.

“I don’t feel like it has impacted my life too much but there have been some things in recent times where people have found me very rude in emails and stuff when I thought I was just being very open and direct.

“So, I am in that space of thinking, I just don’t know what to do. I’m in a relationship with someone who’s also had a diagnosis and it helped her massively. But I don’t think that it would make me feel any different about myself if I had a label on it. I don’t want to look like a box ticker or like I’m doing it for attention but also, because of the work that I do, maybe it could help other people.

“And then I read an article which said people who are getting diagnosis are taking resources away from people who need it more who are more strongly on the spectrum. I don’t I don’t know I don’t I don’t know. I just want to go on pilgrimages for the rest of my life.”

The poor thing is confused. He looks at me. “What do YOU think I should do?’ Oy! I am not quite ready to be his Jewish mum but I would certainly give this adorable, complicated and Jewishy man some chicken soup any time he asked.


Pilgrimage: The Road Through North Wales is available from March 29 on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer.



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