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Book Review; Gilad Atzmon “The Wandering Who?”


by Ian Mann

May 27, 2012

This book is a fascinating insight into what makes Atzmon tick. Yes, it's a polemic but it's a very insightful and entertaining one.

Book Review

Gilad Atzmon

“The Wandering Who?”  (A Study of Jewish Identity Politics)

(Zer0 Books)

To jazz fans Gilad Atzmon is best known as a dynamic multi-instrumentalist playing saxophones, clarinets and accordion with equal brilliance. His music encompasses both jazz and middle eastern influences and from time to time he unleashes his rock and roll persona as a member of The Blockheads. Atzmon is one of the hardest working men in the music business, touring and recording constantly both with his own Orient House Ensemble and with singer/songwriter/guitarist Sarah Gillespie. He’s also an in demand producer and his involvement with any project is guaranteed to enhance the end result and grant it a certain frisson.

Atzmon’s music is inextricably linked to his background. Born in Israel into an orthodox Jewish family Atzmon’s grandfather had been a Zionist terrorist in the aftermath of World War 2. The young Gilad was brought up to believe in the supremacy of the Jewish “race” but soon learned to question this notion, embarking on a course that was to lead to his eventual self imposed exile from the state of Israel and the writing of this book subtitled “A Study Of Jewish Identity Politics”.

The book is a political argument and although little of the content is concerned directly with music the latter subject is still a significant factor in Atzmon’s life choices. He first began to question the values of his family and peers at the age of seventeen when he heard Charlie Parker on a late night jazz programme. “Bird With Strings” was literally the record that changed Atzmon’s life and he later paid homage to Parker with his own album “In Loving Memory Of America”(reviewed elsewhere on this site).

Atzmon’s discovery of jazz and his subsequent realisation that all of his musical heroes were black Americans led him to challenge the notions of “Chosen-ness” that he had been brought up with. He purchased his first saxophone and practised incessantly, suddenly nothing else mattered and his youthful zeal for all things militaristic quickly evaporated. A stint of compulsory military service as part of the Israeli Air Force led him to question things even more deeply as he witnessed the appalling way in which Palestinian political prisoners were treated. As Atzmon puts it “that was enough for me. I realised that my affair with the Israeli state and Zionism was over”. At twenty one Atzmon packed his saxophone and took off to Europe busking in the streets. The cold winter weather forced him to return but ten years later he moved away for good, settling in London where he has greatly enriched the British jazz scene for the last dozen or so years releasing a string of fine albums including the highly apposite “Exile”. 

From his early Parker roots Atzmon has increasingly added Arabic, Turkish and other Middle Eastern music to his unique sound. In the book he speaks of the difficulty he experienced in absorbing this music of his homeland after years of playing jazz, a western music with western notation. Only by embracing “the primacy of the ear” could he play Arab music convincingly, he describes it as a primal music that cannot be transcribed. As Atzmon points out playing “dots and chord symbols” had caused him to forget why he chose to play music in the first place. The ear should take preference over the eye, “after all I had first heard Bird on the radio, I didn’t see him on MTV”.

These musical observations from Atzmon’s book will probably be of the greatest interest to jazz fans but form only a very small part of this work. The rest of the book is a political tract that tackles its subject unflinchingly. Atzmon’s choice of language is pithy to the point of bluntness, he argues his points cogently and precisely, reaching conclusions without any beating around the bush. There is no “Pseuds Corner” faux intellectualism about Atzmon’s arguments, he gets straight to the point and his honesty and the forthright nature of his writing is refreshing. He tackles some heavy subjects but the book is never “difficult”, it’s as easy to read as a novel and constitutes a surprisingly accessible “page turner”.

The cultural and political points Atzmon makes in his book are many and varied and as a Gentile or “Goy”  I’m loath to categorise or summarise his conclusions. In short he tries to unravel the differences between Jewish ethnicity, religion and identity. He looks at the degrees of assimilation and separatism within the Jewish diaspora and the conflicting lures of both, examines the influence of Zionism on American fiscal and military policy (Allan Greenspan and Paul Wolfowitz are high profile characters in this section of the story) and tackles the thorny subject of the Holocaust and its aftermath. 

With refreshing honesty Atzmon reveals his status as a “self hating Jew” as he grows to hate the Israeli state and many of the things it has come to stand for. He is particularly dismissive of Zionism which he regards as flawed and counter productive, encouraging Jews to put their “Jewish-ness” ahead of all other considerations and creating a world wide network of “sayanim” (assistants) in the process. Total assimilation is discouraged but the ability to work within the wheels of governments all over the world is not. He argues that through the fear of Anti Semitism and the fear of a repeat of the Holocaust, fears nurtured by the Zionist movement, Jews have ceased to become “victims” but have instead become oppressors. It?s a classic case of the bullied becoming the bully but on a national scale. He cites the effective “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians immediately after the second world war and the present day persecution of Palestinians to support his case. The book is prefaced by a quote by Israel Shahak who says “The Nazis made me afraid to be a Jew, and the Israeli’s make me ashamed to be a Jew” which pretty much encapsulates the nub of Atzmon’s argument. His stance these days is now essentially pro-Palestinian.

Atzmon offers no neat solutions, Zionism has continued to create a sense of exclusiveness amongst Israelis and Jewish people in general and feeds upon their fears. Until the Jews in general and Israel in particular can undergo the same process of self emancipation as Atzmon himself he sees little hope of any reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and the Islamic and Arab world as a whole.

Obviously the book tackles these arguments in far greater depth referencing customs,traditions and characters that probably mean little to the average Western, non Jewish, lay reader. Nevertheless it’s a fascinating argument made with a forceful and relentless logic and Atzmon’s terse narrative style holds the attention throughout. I approached the book primarily as a music fan but Atzmon’s arguments are convincing and have helped me to learn a little more about the complexities of Middle Eastern and global politics.

In any event Atzmon’s political beliefs are a driving force behind his music, his incorporation of Arab and Turkish elements into his sound constituting a political as well as musical act. Atzmon is a fiercely intelligent man, a polymath, a mass of contradictions and a bundle of barely suppressed energy who never seems to stop working. His politics are an essential part of the man.

Obviously there are many British music fans who are admirers of Atzmon simply because of his brilliant musicianship and his hugely extrovert personality, he’s one of the biggest draws on the UK jazz circuit, but for those seeking to look behind the music this book is a fascinating insight into what makes him tick. Yes, it’s a polemic but it’s a very insightful and entertaining one.

It’s controversial too and has polarised opinion. Some reviews have been either overwhelmingly supportive or vehemently opposed with Atzmon accused of Anti Semitism or racism.There have even been calls for the book to be banned. Other reviews have been more balanced, as I hope this has been, but I can’t deny approaching the book as a huge fan of Atzmon’s music.         


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