Jewish or Leeds? The religions coexist, side by side - The Athletic 20/11/21


Phil Hay and Amitai Winehouse

At the start of the 1970s, Don Revie — then at the height of his powers as Leeds United’s manager — attended a bar mitzvah at the Beth Hamidrash Hagadol synagogue on Street Lane in Leeds. Revie was a friend to the city’s Jewish community and mixed with them as often as he could.

After the service, the synagogue’s Rabbi got chatting with him. “We’ve got a lot in common, Mr Revie,” the Rabbi said, to which Revie made the point that he was not actually Jewish. “No, no,” the Rabbi replied. “What I mean is that we share the same congregation. I have them in the morning and you have them in the afternoon.”

Anthony Clavane, a Jewish author and journalist, was at the same bar mitzvah and overheard that conversation. His friends tell him the story must be apocryphal but Clavane recants it verbatim and sees it as the best example of how hooked Jewish people in Leeds had become on Leeds United.

Saturday was the Sabbath, supposedly a day of rest for Jews and a direct clash with the football schedule, but by the 1970s, many of them were in a fixed routine: synagogue in the morning, Elland Road in the afternoon. The Rabbi who Revie encountered on Street Lane was not about to pretend otherwise.

“As a kid growing up in the ’70s, I’d see people at the synagogue who I knew I’d see at the match later that day,” Clavane says. “Nobody talked about football because we’d all pretend we weren’t going. ‘Good Shabbos, I’m going home to see my mum and have some chicken soup’ — when in fact what we did was leave the synagogue and catch a bus or two to Elland Road. You weren’t supposed to drive on the Sabbath so people parked their cars around the corner, where no-one would see them.”

Clavane’s second book, about Jewish involvement in English football, was titled Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?, a reference to chants aimed at Jewish fans at games back in the day. To which the answer was usually yes. Ultra-orthodox Jews stuck firmly to the rules, observing the Sabbath strictly, but as Revie turned Leeds into a behemoth, the appeal of football was too strong to resist.

This weekend, Leeds travel to Tottenham Hotspur, an institution widely regarded as England’s Jewish club. But in West Yorkshire there is a largely untold tale of a community who became fanatical about their local team, contributed to Leeds United’s finest eras and continue to turn out en masse at Elland Road today, as avid as they have ever been.

The Athletic has spoken to Jewish Leeds fans about the experience of following a club where their history and heritage is not entirely common knowledge, and where their passion for football can collide with anti-semitic abuse — some of it from supporters who wear the same colours as them. Amid active attempts to prevent anti-semitism at Spurs on Sunday, we asked the question: what is it like to be part of this movement?

“We went to worship at the synagogue and then we went to worship at Elland Road,” Clavane says. “That intense passion for the club — it became our second religion.”

The birth of the Jewish population in Leeds can be traced as far back as 1840. Many of them lived in the Leylands at first before migrating north through Chapeltown, Moortown and Alwoodley. From a peak of 25,000 in the early 1930s, the population has since fallen to around 10,000.

Clavane’s first book, Promised Land, researched the history of Leeds and noted how the Jewish community saw pastimes like football as a way of integrating with the rest of the city. Rugby league was the first sport to draw them in, up until the end of the 1950s, but an increasing number of Jews gravitated to Elland Road as Revie’s revolution took hold of Leeds United.

“Jewish people wanted to belong and play a part in the cultural activities of Leeds,” Clavane says. “One way to do that was to get involved in sport.

“The community got hooked on rugby league in a big way because it was a bigger sport in Leeds, up until the Don Revie era anyway. There’s no way around this — because the Revie era was super successful, people began to switch. In the 1960s, it started to change.”

That generally accepted fact is not to say that prior interest in Leeds United was non-existent. Rabbi Anthony Gilbert, of Etz Chaim synagogue in Moor Allerton, tells a specific tale that suggests otherwise, concerning a prayer group that existed in Leeds in the 1930s.

“The people wanted to say Kaddish — the mourner’s prayer — for a loved one during the year after their parents passed away but at the same time, they wanted to go to the match,” Gilbert says. “They would beg the synagogue officials to open the synagogue at 2pm to say Kaddish, so that they could go to Elland Road after!”

By the 1960s and the Revie era, Leeds’ Jewish community was doing more than filling the terraces at Elland Road. In response to financial strife at the end of the 1950s, Leeds United appealed to the city for investment and the Jewish population answered. The club’s board of directors, led by chairman Harry Reynolds, took on three Jewish directors, including Manny Cussins, who would later be appointed chairman himself.

An interest-free loan was given to Leeds and Arnold Ziff, a prominent Jewish businessman in the city, created the “100 Club” where individuals paid £100 for lifelong season tickets. It was an early-day corporate model in football that Clavane describes as “very forward-thinking”.

“I always make the point that while Spurs were quite clearly a Jewish club in the early part of the 20th century, the first time they had a Jewish director was Irving Scholar in 1982,” Clavane says. “Leeds had three in the 1960s.

“For a time, Leeds looked like they were going to go under and they needed finance to come into the club so they appealed to the Jewish community. Manny Cussins, Sidney Simon and Albert Morris said they would give the club a direct loan, interest-free, worth something like £2,000. Going back to the ’60s, that was a lot of money.

“It happened out of desperation or expediency but for Jewish people, there was a sense that people like us are involved in the club now. I’m not saying the club wasn’t welcoming, but it did make a difference. This was a breakthrough, like opening a door.”

Revie became close to the Jewish population, living in Alwoodley. “Revie became a sort of honorary Jew,” Clavane says. “One of the people in his inner circle was Herbert Warner. The bingo, dominos, the legendary stories about what Revie did with his team — Herbert was the guy who ran all that, a very colourful character in the Jewish community.

“In my father’s youth, there was an unwritten rule that Jews couldn’t join golf clubs in Leeds so they set up their own one at Moor Allerton, which wasn’t exclusively for Jews but allowed Jews to play there. Revie would go and play his golf there too.”

Revie won the domestic title twice with the first contingent of Jewish businessmen on the Leeds board. The second of those titles, in 1974, came during Cussins’ reign as chairman. But the club suffered a slow and sustained decline after the end of Revie’s reign, dropping from European competitions to England’s second division by 1982.

In 1981, Leslie Silver, a Jewish entrepreneur who was born in London but moved to West Yorkshire in his youth, joined Leeds as a director. He had made his wealth in the paint industry and within two years, he became the club’s chairman.

Leeds, under Silver, muddled on for a few seasons and fans were critical of his regime for a while. Then, in 1988, he oversaw the appointment of Howard Wilkinson as manager. Leeds were Division Two champions in 1990 and first division title winners for a third time in 1992. The recruitment of Wilkinson became a masterstroke.

Hayden Evans, the former agent of Gary Speed and David Batty, both of whom played a major role in the Wilkinson years, remembers Silver with fondness.  “You can’t say this about too many people in football but he was a gentleman,” Evans says. “Always polite, always courteous but also very shrewd when it came to doing the right things.

“To people on the inside, Leslie was always appreciated but to people on the outside, he’s probably only been properly appreciated with hindsight.”

But what drove them to become involved in the way that they did? “Manny Cussins and Leslie Silver were Yorkshire-born or moved here as young children,” Gilbert says. “They brought nachas, a Jewish sense of pride, because they were homegrown and bred. They were self-made millionaires.

“Leslie Silver came from a family that didn’t have anything. Manny Cussins was the same. They had a strong affinity for Yorkshire, a strong affinity for Leeds, local Yiddishe businessmen who helped make the football team great.”

Cussins had a charitable foundation, supporting children in Leeds. Silver was heavily involved in the founding of Leeds Polytechnic (now Leed Beckett University). Giving to the city through Leeds United was another strand of their philanthropy.

In the away end at Leeds games, the club’s Jewish supporters have a little in-joke on days when they travel in smaller numbers than usual. Some of the prayers they attend require the presence of at least 10 male Jews, or a Minyan, for the service to go ahead. Similar headcounts now go on at away games, purely for fun.

“I went to Cardiff City a few years back, when Leeds took about 800, and there were only a few of us there,” says Simon Field, a Leeds supporter in his late 20s. “That’s the joke we have among ourselves — ‘you couldn’t get a Minyan here!’. But if we’re truthful, these days you’ll find more Jewish fans in the away end at a Leeds game than you’ll find in a synagogue. That’s how it is.”

Rabbi Gilbert, who was born in Leeds in 1956, has seen the same trend. “Years ago, we had people who walked to shul (the synagogue) on a Shabbat with their families,” Gilbert says. “They knew how to read Hebrew. They knew how to follow the service. They got home, they had their chopped liver and chicken soup and then, no matter what time Shabbat finished, they got in the car and went to Elland Road.

“Unfortunately, now it has got to the point that they don’t bother to go to shul on a Shabbat morning. They go straight to Elland Road. That’s been the shift and it’s the case for the younger group. The older generation still go to shul.”

Field, who describes himself as a secular Jew, travels home and away with a group of Jewish friends and always recognises swathes of faces in the grounds he visits. At Arsenal last month, for an FA Cup tie in which Leeds lost 2-0, he estimated that around 400 supporters in an away end with a capacity of just over 5,000 were Jewish. “That’s not far off 10 per cent, which is pretty incredible because the population of Jews in Leeds is tiny, nothing like that,” Field says. Of the 800,000 people who live in Leeds, fewer than two per cent are Jewish.

Football in England has not always been a safe or comfortable haven for minority groups. Many would say that it is still not safe enough.

Field learned from his grandmother that Jews who migrated to the UK in the early parts of the 20th century arrived with scepticism and fear about how they would be received here, a fear he has never felt himself. He began following Leeds during the 2002-03 season and can think of four instances of anti-semitic abuse he has witnessed at matches, three of them involving Leeds fans and one where Nazi salutes were thrown by a Huddersfield Town supporter.

“None of it puts me off going,” Field says. “I’m able to tell myself that it’s a minority of idiots, and every club has a minority of idiots. I can’t talk for other minorities at football but I feel safe. I don’t know, perhaps it’s because outwardly, a lot of Jewish people aren’t obviously (Jewish). Perhaps that makes a difference.

“My grandma would say to me ‘you can eat with a non-Jew, you can work with a non-Jew, you can laugh with a non-Jew. But as soon as you turn your back on them, you’re a dirty Jew’. That was her attitude, two generations above mine.

“I see things totally differently. I’ve never felt threatened walking down the street.”

The fact that Leeds had Jewish heritage, and that men like Cussins and Silver had been so integral to the club’s golden eras, only strengthened the club’s appeal, even if you have to go back to Les Gaunt (born Leslie Goldberg) in the 1940s to find a prominent Jewish player.

But for Field, the thought of bending the rules of the Sabbath has never been too much of a struggle. There are only two days in the year when he feels conflicted about his commitment to religion and football: on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, and Pesach (the Passover).

“I won’t go to the football on either of those,” he says. “It’s harder when it’s a big game but I still won’t go. I missed Leeds down at Yeovil (in 2010) when Richard Naylor scored twice and that was massive at the time. But with Pesach, it’s like having a game on Christmas Day. Some people would go any way but a lot of others would say the family is the priority. It’s a battle, though.”

Clavane dealt with that delicate balance of priorities too. As a boy, he attended a Jewish primary school in Leeds where football was frowned upon. Full-sized balls would be confiscated and so would anything else they tried to play with instead: tennis balls, apples, stones or orange peel. “We were fanatical about the game,” Clavane says, “but the fear within the school was that by getting into football you would break the Sabbath because football was almost exclusively played on a Saturday.

“We were drawn to it, though, just like non-Jewish people were, and looking back, Elland Road was the place where I first mixed with non-Jewish people. It was my first experience of integration, jumping around celebrating an Allan Clarke goal. Football can have a terrible reputation in terms of racism but it can be great at integrating communities, without those communities losing their identity.”

The Levin family, who live in north Leeds, bought a cockapoo puppy several months back and named it after Norman Hunter, the former Leeds defender whose persona on the pitch was more suited to a Rottweiler.

So much in the Levin household revolves around Leeds United. Louise and Richard married after meeting at Norwich City during Leeds’ title-winning season in 1991-92. Their three daughters, Sophie, Emma and Isabella, have, as Louise puts it, “been passed the passion and the curse by us, for better or worse”.

Like Field, the Levins are secular Jews who attend games on the Sabbath. Louise has been hooked since her very first game which was, to her immense delight, the iconic 7-0 thrashing that Revie’s Leeds meted out to Southampton in 1972. Her father, Harvey, and mother, Eunice, took her to matches (her mother’s side of the family were far more interested in rugby league) and told her stories about Sunderland where Jewish fans left match tickets on the gate to allow them to go to the football on a Saturday.

“Our religion can be odd and you have Jewish people like us who pick and choose which bits of it they observe,” Louise says. “Some people would frown upon you for carrying a ticket on the Sabbath and I’ve got friends who won’t go to Elland Road on a Saturday. We’re all different in that sense. Sometimes Sky Sports moving everything can be a bonus!”

Louise’s young nephew once asked her if the Levin family were “Jewish or Leeds?”, which struck her as an interesting question. “I told him we’re both, Jewish and Leeds,” she says. “Judaism’s our religion and Leeds is our passion.”

At the synagogue where the Levins worship on Shadwell Lane, it helps that the Rabbi there, Albert Chait, is a big Liverpool fan. “He knows what we do and he knows people go to the games on a Saturday,” Louise says. “Other Rabbis would take a different view, but he’s fine with it. By the letter of the law, we’re breaking the rules. We all know that.”

The presence of anti-semitism weighs heavier on Louise than it does on Field, at least to judge by how they talk about it. Louise watched the “appalling” recent video of West Ham United supporters aiming anti-semitic chants at an orthodox Rabbi on an aeroplane and felt a mixture of sadness and revulsion. She and Richard have tickets for this weekend’s game at Tottenham but when we spoke for this article, she was undecided about whether to travel to it, concerned about the possibility of anti-semitic abuse from the stands.

“With Leeds, I don’t feel uncomfortable at games specifically because I’m Jewish,” she says. “There are times when the away crowd can be quite toxic, on edge and not that safe, but Tottenham is a game I do worry about. I have got tickets but I don’t know if I want to go, just because of what I might hear there. It’s not to say I’ll definitely hear anything bad but if I did, I’d find that very uncomfortable. I wouldn’t want to challenge anyone over it.”

Back in the late 1980s, when the National Front was present and active around Elland Road on match days, Louise found their presence worrying. “But these days anti-semitism isn’t just about the right wing,” she says. “It’s about the left wing too. I’m very proud to be Jewish but I don’t shout about it. The atmosphere in society and especially online is quite worrying at the moment.”

Leeds, though, have been a central part of the Levins’ lives. Louise’s parents were members of the 100 Club and later became personal friends of Leslie Silver’s. “The club’s very important to the community and it has been for a long time,” she says. “I’m forever grateful for having this passion in my life.”

Leeds and the city’s Jewish population remain as intertwined as ever. When Marcelo Bielsa’s side lost to Liverpool at Elland Road in August, the Levins invited Chait to the match with them (it took place on a Sunday so Chait was not required to break the Sabbath). He had been pitchside at the stadium several months earlier, lighting the final candle to mark the end of the festival of Hanukkah in 2020. Jewish or Leeds? The religions coexist, side by side.

Before Leeds’ last Premier League fixture ahead of this international break, a full page in the club’s matchday programme was used to publish an article urging supporters to guard against incidents of anti-semitic abuse.

Leeds’ next fixture is away at Tottenham this Sunday. It will be their fans’ maiden trip to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium (Spurs’ 3-0 win in January was played behind closed doors) and their first away match at Tottenham since January 2010.

The text talked about “the Y-word” and reiterated the fact that it was defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “derogatory and offensive”. The effort to pre-empt and prevent problems at Spurs was referenced as far afield as the Jerusalem Post.

Nadav Winehouse, a lifelong Leeds supporter, is a member of the supporters’ advisory board at Elland Road and raised concerns about the trip to Tottenham a few months ago.

“To be honest, I was concerned that there would be problems with Leeds fans at the Spurs game,” he says. “Clubs have never come out with much regarding anti-semitism. It’s becoming a bit of a problem in English football and it’s an increasing problem in England generally.”

Clavane has experienced anti-semitism among Leeds supporters over the years, although he stresses that the abuse is “not representative” of the club’s fanbase.

“I’ve been to Spurs-Leeds games where I’ve heard terrible things,” Clavane says. “I’d be sitting in the same railway carriage but too scared to call it out. I thought I might get beaten up.

“I wondered, do they realise that without the Jewish contribution, the club wouldn’t be exactly what it is today? Do they know that? But it wasn’t representative of Leeds. The majority of Leeds fans are welcoming to Jewish people, of course they are.”

The club intend to release a video in the lead-up to Sunday’s game, with some of their players discussing anti-semitic chanting. “It would mean a lot to me,” Winehouse says. “It would mean a lot for the club as an institution to listen to a concern of the fanbase and execute it. It would also mean the fanbase are aware of an issue they might not have been previously.

“The club have been extremely supportive. The real test will be the away end at Spurs and what happens before the home game (against them) — hopefully with us not needing to do this again.”

Like Tottenham, Leeds as a club have themselves been the target of anti-semitic abuse over the years, the apparent result of their history of Jewish ownership and the large numbers of Jews in their support.

A visit to Huddersfield Town in 2012 led West Yorkshire Police to investigate anti-semitic chanting towards the away end. One Huddersfield fan later pleaded guilty to a religiously aggravated public order offence after being filmed performing a Nazi salute. Four Jewish Leeds fans who attended that game told the court that they had repeatedly heard the ‘y*d’ word used by home supporters.

How that term has pervaded the Leeds-Huddersfield rivalry was shown very recently by Yorkshire Cricket Club suspending head coach Andrew Gale over a historical tweet from 2010 in which Gale, a Huddersfield fan, told Paul Dews, Leeds’ former club media officer, to “button it y*d!”

Asked to explain his tweet, Gale told Jewish News: “This post is part of a conversational thread between Paul Dews and myself. Paul worked for Leeds United Football Club at the time and I am an avid Huddersfield Town fan. The reference is to a chant that was prevalent at the time concerning Leeds fans.

“Within a few minutes of the post, Paul called me and explained the meaning of the word and that it was offensive to Jews. I was completely unaware of this meaning and removed the post immediately.”

Former Yorkshire cricketer Azeem Rafiq, who has spoken powerfully about his experiences of racist abuse while a player at Headingley, also apologised this week for the anti-Semitic Facebook messages he sent when was 19. “I am incredibly angry at myself and apologise to the Jewish community,” said the 30-year-old.

None of this diminishes the community’s devotion to Leeds and amid the talk about anti-Semitism this weekend, a very different chant may crop up in the away end: one that celebrates Tony Yeboah, sung to the tune of Hava Nagila. The Jewish folk song is usually heard at traditional celebrations but it became a favourite of the Leeds faithful too, first used for Imre Varadi and then for Yeboah.

There is pride in that heritage for the people who created it and pride in a history that gives Leeds United a badge of honour to defend: the most Jewish of English clubs.

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