Sunday, 6 October 2013

Yiddos! Yiddos! 

So, today, West Ham play Spurs at White Hart Lane. So, it's the first game between them since the debate about the (chanting) use of the words 'yid' and 'yiddo'. So, one thing I've not seen in all the discussion is anything about when and how 'yid' came to be used by Spurs fans. 


So . . . I happened to be there, I think, around the very time it started. I wrote about it in my book on swearing, Filthy English. Here is the section . . . it's the end of a chapter on racial slurs and I've been discussing the reclaiming of nigger and paki by, well, people of african and south asian descent who chose to judo throw a racist word and declare themselves to be, well, niggers and pakis.

I first came across another reappropriation early in the morning of Wednesday, 9 May 1984. Very early. I was on a coach, one coach in a giant convoy of coaches – an invasion of coaches – which was snaking its way through the London dawn towards Dover. And from there to Ostend harbour, the medieval city of Bruges and, finally, the Brussels suburb of Anderlecht.

By the time the coach retraced its route, almost twenty-four sleepless hours later, there had been a fatal stabbing, some violent scuffles and a 1–1 draw between Spurs and Anderlecht in the first leg of the UEFA Cup Final. On our return, as we disembarked from the ferry at Dover, we would be greeted by a dozen or so reporters, a flash of bulbs and a predictability of questions. That was nearly a day in the future, though. That would be the final stages of the ritualistic sequence of events for English football followers venturing to European away games in the 1980s: long coach journey, drink, more drink, fear, anger, confused local citizens, drink, boring match, violence, drink, long coach journey, home, hangover, work.

But, for now, in the grubby London dawn, hope and anticipation were still trumping memory, knowledge and bitter experience. For everyone on the coach apart from me, that is. They were actual fans. I was merely working. I was there on the coach to write about the experience of being on the coach. I was doing the leg-work for a piece about travelling with football fans, at a time when travelling English football fans were ‘the scourge of Europe’, a ‘blight on the beautiful game’, ‘a rabble of hooligans’ etc. That was no mere loudmouthing editorialising either. A year later, in another suburb of Brussels, at another European final, thirty-nine Juventus fans would be killed.

No-one on the coach was interested in me, not in the slightest. They were interested in being together. They were a group, a small crowd. They sang, they chanted – in dawn’s early light. They were teenagers, mostly. All boys, of course.

Polite mostly, not at all hooligany and, I soon discovered, nearly all Jewish. I probably would have figured that out anyway, for a variety of reasons, not least the fact that my own sons are half-Jewish. But I didn’t need to. The chants did it for me. This was their favourite: If you’re proud to come from Israel, clap your hands. (Clap, clap, clap.) If you’re proud to come from Israel, clap your hands. (Clap, clap, clap. Pause.) Yiddooos! Yiddooos!

I’d not heard it before. I had to stifle my giggles. I knew that none of them were Israelis. I could hear that in their London accents. The Israel thing was part joke, part identification with something powerful that was theirs – and not, say, Arsenal fans’. Tottenham was a ‘Jewish club’ and they were set on making that clear – with the assertive brittleness you’d expect of minority group teenagers.

How long Spurs has been a ‘Jewish club’ – and why – has never really been that clear. It only gets the most passing of mentions in Hunter Davies’ 1972 book on the club, The Glory Game. Even then, it’s half in code. Davies is talking to Morris Keston, a ‘Hanger-on’ as he disparagingly refers to the club’s wealthy fan. Why do so many of the Hangers-on seem to be from the rag trade? he asks, somewhat disingenuously. ‘There’s always been a big following amongst Jewish people in the East End for clubs like Tottenham and Arsenal,’ replies Keston.

Not just a Tottenham thing, then. There’s no further reference to the subject in either the 1985 or 1990 editions, either. My guess is simply that it’s the nearest club to Stamford Hill. And that its fans’ self-conscious Jewishness only started to emerge around the time I found myself sitting on a smelly coach to Belgium.
This ‘yiddoos’ thing was interesting. I’d never heard it used by Jews before, only by racists and other teams’ fans. This was the most glorious, self-conscious act of reappropriation. As rappers and hip-hoppers would take over nigger, as Coloured People and People of Colour and homosexual academia would construct (and deconstruct) queer theory, so these teenage Jewish boys had taken an insult and turned it, made a double agent of it. It was as if gypsies took to calling themselves gypos.†

Over the next few years, all Tottenham fans, not just the Jewish ones, took to calling themselves yiddoos or yids. When Jurgen Klinsmann joined the club, they chanted ‘Jurgen was a German but now he’s a Jew’, to the tune of the Sherman brothers’ Mary Poppins song, ‘Chim Chim Cheree’. Other European clubs in Europe – Bayern Munich, FK Austria Wien and AS Roma, for example – are similarly ‘Jewish’, for various historical and cultural reasons. Fans of Amsterdam’s Ajax wear red Stars of David and spread giant blue and white Israeli flags across their terraces. These Spurs’ fans chants and songs were never mentioned by commentators or football writers but you could hear the chants at every game. Why didn’t they mention it? Because it would mean using the word ‘yid’ or ‘yiddo’. They worried – probably rightly – that just saying it or writing it would inevitably draw them into uncomfortable areas.

This reappropriation unsettled the racist mind, of course. Slowly, over time, other fans stopped calling them Tottenham yids. Not because they didn’t still think of them that way and not because the word’s meaning had changed but because the word’s association had changed. The thought may have remained the same but the word itself had been flipped, like a pancake. What had been bad had been made good. There’s no power left in an insult when the person you’re trying to insult has ironized it into a proud self-description. At least, you’d think so. But it’s not so. Chelsea fans have long chanted: ‘Gas a Jew, Jew Jew, put him in the oven, cook him through.’ There is also a story that when Manchester City fans sang a song about foreskins, Spurs fans pulled out their penises and waved them at the Mancunians. Other fans, West Ham fans, in particular, still talk (and chant) about Tottenham yids. And their voices and hearts are still filled with hatred. As with nigger, it’s the thought that counts, not the word.

† Well, maybe not quite. ‘Gypsy’ is a result of a misplacing of that group’s origins in Egypt rather than India. Yid is, at least, a Jewish word. Similar to the German Jude, it’s derived ultimately from Judah (or Yehuda), the three-thousand-year-old name for the mountainous area which runs along one edge of the Dead Sea south from Jerusalem towards the Sinai desert. It was the bit ruled over by King David. The northern section is now usually referred to as the West Bank. It was Jews who first called themselves yids. Leo Rosten, in The Joys of Yiddish, says they pronounced it to rhyme with ‘need’, though. Only racists rhymed it with ‘did’.

So . . ?