Thursday evening, I’ll be following my football team, Tottenham Hotspur and cheering them on to a victory over Maccabi Haifa.
I may have lived in Israel for the best part of forty years, but there is one loyalty which remains deeply rooted from my childhood and teenage days in North London. There are no dual sporting loyalties as far as I am concerned. Maccabi Haifa could be from the other end of the planet. There is only one team out there for me tonight – and that is Tottenham.
I boast what I believe is the largest physical collection of English football memorabilia in Israel, perhaps the Middle East, here in Metar in the south of Israel. Ninety percent of it is Tottenham related material including a complete set of home programmes dating back to 1950 (and some are even earlier) numbering over 2000 all told. When I am back in the UK, I scour the memorabilia fairs, as well as the sporting auctions which can now be accessed anywhere in the world – perhaps there will be an item which I have missed and which isn’t being sold for an inflated price. More often than not my overweight baggage on the London – Tel Aviv trip (which hasn’t occurred during the past six months due to Corona) is filled up – to my wife’s horror – with books and Tottenham material. The sure way to annoy her is to surreptitiously fill her hand luggage, at the last moment, with some Tottenham programmes which will not fit into my bag, shortly after I have told her we don’t have any more room or weight for that extra food or clothing item which she wanted to purchase.
Forty one years of marriage and she has absolutely no interest in the great game and has never once, in all that time, been persuaded to sit down and watch a game with me. She has been dragged on three occasions, when in England, to a game but has displayed little interest in the proceedings. A sure way to ensure a good long lasting marriage – it is simply not a relevant topic of conversation.
I make sure that most of the conferences, research meetings and projects that I am involved with are London based so that I can take in as many live games as possible. In recent years, while on sabbatical at the University of London, I was fortunate enough to be present at both the last game at Tottenham’s old stadium in 2017 and, two years later, at the first game at the magnificent new stadium which has been constructed in the heart of one of London’s most depressed neighbourhoods, not far away from the Hassidic neighbourhood of Stamford Hill.
Childish? Absolutely. Escapism from life’s problems? Even more so. But it remains deeply rooted and I can hold my own with anyone who wishes to engage me in a discussion or argument about English football in general, and Tottenham Hotspur in particular, going back to the glory years of the 1960’s, the period in which I began my football supporting career. I was taken to a Boxing Day game. This was one of the few days at that time when an orthodox Jew could attend football as most of the games were only played on Saturday (Shabat) afternoons, unlike today when it is spread throughout the week due to TV and commercial considerations.
The person who took me to that game was my classmate from the orthodox Agudat Yisrael school, Avigdor, in North London. He and his family have lived even longer than me in Israel, making Aliyah as far back as 1969. He may not appreciate me mentioning his name here but he and his father are to blame for the meshugass of my life.
North London is where seventy percent of the British Jewish community reside. And although it is Tottenham who are known by the affectionate term of “Yids” by their supporters, the Jewish community is fairly evenly divided between the two North London teams – Arsenal and Tottenham. As a teenager I grew up in a synagogue (where my father was the Rabbi but displayed no interest in football) where one of the two Gaboim (synagogue wardens) was a Tottenham supporter and the other supported the other team (having mentioned them once in this article is enough). One of my jobs at that time was to stand outside the televisions shop on a Shabat afternoon to see the football results, and then go along to the afternoon synagogue services and report to the attentive audience. I was rewarded with their season tickets for mid weeks matches (at both teams) when they were unable to go on busy work days.
When the present Chief Rabbi of Britain, Ephraim Mirvis, a fervent Tottenham supporter, was inducted into office in 2013, he didn’t fail to mention in his speech that he was replacing a Chief Rabbi, one of world Jewry’s most eminent thinkers and philosophers, Lord Jonathan Sacks, who supported just as fervently the other team. Go to any North London synagogue on a Shabbat morning and invariably the discussion over Kiddush, a discussion which started in the sometimes too long prayer services, will be a friendly rivalry and banter between supporters of the respective teams – with an eye on the watch for those, slightly less observant, who wish to make it to the game in time.
Prior to the advent of satellite TV it was normal for both ex-London Tottenham and Arsenal supporters living in Israel, to meet at the MASH Pub in North Tel Aviv to watch their respective teams. A North London derby would bring together many old childhood friends, united in their Zionism and their love for the State of Israel, but equally bitterly divided over their football affiliations. Some of us may have developed Israeli football affiliations over time, but that is a minority and when, as tonight, it comes to a game of our beloved London team against an Israeli counterpart – the latter becomes irrelevant and is quickly pushed aside.
There are two major groups of Tottenham supporters in Israel that I know of. One of these groups, made up largely of ex Londoners like myself, meets on a regular basis in someone’s house in Talpiyot in South Jerusalem to see matches together. The other, composed more of young Israelis (and some ex Brits) who adopt a European team (normally Barcelona, Real Madrid or Manchester United – but there are some enlightened Tottenham supporters), meet in a Pizza bar in Petach Tikva to see all the games. The bar is run by someone whose father grew up in North London and, yes you’ve guessed it, was imbued with Tottenham values as a child before coming many many years ago to live in Israel. Some of these younger Israeli supporters who are also fervent supporters of a local Israeli team, are more likely to be conflicted by matters of conscience over tomorrow’s game than we ex-Brits are.
I retain my season ticket to the new stadium, even during those periods when I am unable to make it to many matches. Fortunately my work in London in recent years has enabled me to be present at a good number – while the Sunday morning El Al flight from Tel Aviv (until the onset of corona) lands at Heathrow with just enough time to get to the ground for an afternoon game. There are always friends and acquaintances who are only too happy to make use of my ticket when I am absent. It is a valuable piece of property given the fact that even with the new stadium capacity of over 60,000 fans, there are almost three times as many people on the waiting list for a season ticket (don’t ask me the price, it is my one personal luxury in life) as there are ticket holders.
When the game is over on Thursday evening I will go back to finishing off the decorations of my Succa in time for the festival which commences Friday evening. One of the walls is always dedicated to an assortment of Tottenham scarves and flags. They are an important additional ushpizin (Succa guests) although I have yet to find a Rabbi – even the British Chief Rabbi – who has composed the specific blessing for their presence.
Thursday evening will be the first time that an Israeli team has ever played at Tottenham, although they have played at other London clubs over the years. But Tottenham have visited Israel on no fewer than six occasions since 1962, playing nine games all told. Most of these were friendly games, but the last of those games, in 2008, was a competitive European game against Hapoel Tel Aviv at the Bloomfield Stadium in South Tel Aviv. Tottenham supporters from throughout Israel, including many yeshiva students who were in Israel for the years, made up for a significant proportion of the supporters in the ground that evening. It reminded me of the excellent football book written by Jewish Leeds United supporter and sports journalist, Anthony Clavane, about the links between football and the Jewish community, and appropriately entitled “Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?: The Story of English Football’s Forgotten Tribe”, although I suspect that some of their Rabbis may have been with them at the game that evening.
So all I can wish for this evening’s game is a simple COYS – Come on You Spurs (for the uninitiated, this is the term Tottenham are known by). I’m a proud Tottenham Yid, not in the least worried that the affectionate use of the term may cause increased anti-semitism which it clearly does not. Most Jewish supporters of Tottenham are more than comfortable with the use of the term and suggest that the root causes of the real scourge of anti-semitism should be sought elsewhere. Thanks to Corona, I’ll be sitting quietly at home watching it with one son, whose family are in lockdown with us, but given the fact that all the games in England are presently being played behind closed doors, it doesn’t make much of a difference.
But of course, should Maccabi, Hapoel or Betar – Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem or Beer Sheva or any other Israeli team be drawn against a British opponent next year, not least the other North London club who play in red, it would be unthinkable and unpatriotic not to support the Israeli team.
Dual loyalties???? Not me.