Shabbat in Davos

I’m very pleased to see that Robert Scoble went to the Shabbat dinner in Davos on Friday night. That wasn’t part of my informal advice to him as a Davos newbie because he’s not Jewish and I know it’s a reasonably private event. But many of my best Davos memories are of the Shabbat dinner.

It’s ironic for me, because I’m as secular a Jew as could be. I even went to a secular Sunday school: the North Shore School of Jewish Studies, which no longer seems to exist. What does it mean to be a secular Sunday school? We were taught about Jewish history and culture, but we weren’t taught to believe in God or — and this would be unthinkable in today’s America — in Zionism. I’m proud of my Jewish roots and I think I had a good education in my culture, but it never included things like Shabbat dinners.

Until I arrived in Davos. Greg Blatt, who was a macher at the Forum for many years, invited me to the Friday dinner at one of my earliest Annual Meetings and I attended faithfully through to my last “Davos”, the 2002 meeting which was held extraordinarily in New York. Why did a non-religious person like me go faithfully to a Sabbath meal? It provided a warmth and connection that went beyond the ordinary Davos bonhomie. But it also reflected the significant personal journey I had made since my childhood.

Growing up on the North Shore of Chicago there was certainly nothing unusual in being Jewish and nothing particularly unusual about being Jewish and secular (heck, there were enough of us for a whole Sunday school). When I arrived in Oxford in 1978 the situation was very different. There are plenty of Jewish students in Oxford certainly, but equally in the late ’70s in Britain it was still acceptable for a certain strain of right winger to be distinctively anti-Semitic. I remember seeing dinners of the Monday Club — a particularly odious Conservative Party off-shoot — in my college that even to a detached observer really reeked of hatred for anyone who was Not One of Us. (I still remember that one of the members of that young Conservative group was Winston Churchill’s grandson and another became quite a successful diplomat for Her Majesty’s Government.)

Later, living in London, I kept encountering the same sort of thing. I remember even writing at one point to ITV to complain about what I saw as anti-Semitic jokes by Jim Davidson on some woeful variety program. It elicited some dusty reply. From about the same time, I remember the joke told by former prime minister Harold Macmillan. Commenting on Margaret Thatcher’s first cabinet, Macmillan said, “There are more old Estonians than old Etonians.” Boom boom. The wicked cleverness of Macmillan does nothing to diminish the clear anti-Semitism.

Perhaps it was all those old Estonians in Thatcher’s circle, perhaps it was change occasioned by time, but by the ’90s I hardly ever encountered the anti-Semitism I’d found in the ’70s and early ’80s. But those years made me far more conscious of being Jewish than I had ever been before. So when the opportunity came to do something that was so distinctively tied up in my Judaism, I was happy to break bread with others in Davos. It’s great that Robert was able to do the same.

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