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Feminist writer Wandors back to her Jewish roots

PUBLISHED: 12:39 31 May 2007 | UPDATED: 14:32 07 September 2010

Poet Michelene Wandor talks to Bridget Galton about the struggle women face combining parenthood with a career OVER several years, Micheline Wandor has penned a triptych of poems about the history of Jews in England. The Belsize Lane resident didn t set

Poet Michelene Wandor talks to Bridget Galton about the struggle women face combining parenthood with a career

OVER several years, Micheline Wandor has penned a triptych of poems about the history of Jews in England.

The Belsize Lane resident didn't set out to create a body of work on the subject but was pursuing her twin interests in historical research and her Jewish heritage.

"My poetry has always had Jewish themes, even before the revivalist interest and resurgence of Jewish culture of the past 15 years. I am not religious at all - I am a good Jewish atheist - but it is part of my culture and background."

One of Wandor's poems commemorates the massacre of Jews in York in 1190, another speculates that Shakespeare's dark Lady of the Sonnets hailed from a family of Jewish musicians.

The latest, Music of the Prophets, celebrates the 350th anniversary of the return of the Jews to England in the time of Cromwell.

Expelled from England by Royal decree in 1290, Jews were banned from practising their religion, burying their dead or conducting proceedings according to Jewish law.

"There was a huge amount of prejudice and a refusal to acknowledge the Jews," says Wandor. Records show there were Jews, but many were covert and pretended to be Christians."

But in the 17th Century, strong arguments emerged to readmit Jews to the country.

"There was a movement that believed the second coming was imminent and quoted the prophecy that Jews would be dispersed to every part of the world to the ends of the world before the Messiah comes. Because England was the one community in the world that they had been banished from, they said Jews must be readmitted before the Messiah could come."

Dutch-based Portuguese Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel also led a strong economic argument that Jewish merchants and importers were important to the English economy.

"Cromwell had a certain amount of religious tolerance but was also receptive to the econo-mic arguments," says Wandor.

He met Ben Israel at The Whitehall Conference in December 1655 when a gathering of merchants, lawyers and clergymen debated the readmission of Jews.

Wandor has imagined the rapport between them and says she loves the "speculative games" she can play in her poetry.

"It gives you the opportunity to play with it, ask questions and try to load the evidence. You can ask how do you tell the difference between a Christian and a Jew and what are the consequences of making those distinctions."

In a lengthy writing career, Wandor has dramatised The Jungle Book, The Mill on the Floss, and Jane Eyre for radio; Pride and Prejudice for the stage; edited several volumes of plays by women; and written plays, short stories and essays including many on feminism and theatre.

After graduating with an English degree from Cambridge in 1962, she had two children and was among the early feminists writing about the struggle of combining parenthood with a career.

"There is a reason why women today having children after a career are writing books about it. They have just realised things haven't changed. It's a culture shock when you have a baby and they are belatedly realising that the feminist ideal of validating work profession and career is fine and right but only a partial solution. You can't do it unless you do something about the family.

I love my children but I do wish I had them 10 years later. The business of juggling children, work and being able to feel you are on a level with your peers is very hard. I started writing because you could do that and have children."

Wandor says the early femi-nists were often divided between those who had children and "were straining at the leash" and those who didn't want to be confined or defined by motherhood.

"There was a kind of tension between these different life choices. It's better to be able to have things to choose between but choice is always loaded, there is no such thing as a free lunch."

She believes things are changing "slowly" for women - the number of women artistic directors of theatres has risen from 12 per cent to 19 per cent in two decades.

"There has been a very tiny shift," says Wandor, who has researched on written on the subject.

"The number of women playwrights performed and published is a little bit better than it was 30 years ago up from seven per cent to 12 per cent but that's got more to do with women taking their professional careers seriously for longer than with breaking glass ceilings. Most of the important theatres are still run by men. The gender issue is as central as it has ever been but it's always seen as a problem that affects women and men remove themselves from the equation.

"Unless it's acknowledged by men as a gender issue I don't think anything's going to change. Women are forced to think of ourselves as gendered but men don't and that's why fundamental things haven't changed."

o Music of the Prophets and other Micheline Wandor titles are available from www.mwandor. co.uk.

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