Manchester connections, universal roots

My great-grandmother Pepi Bleich-Schwager arrived in Manchester, England in 1899 with her mother Chaje after leaving the town of Skalat in Austrian Galicia (now Ukraine). They travelled via Hamburg with a group of Jewish emigrants and found work as seamstresses in Manchester’s flourishing textile industry. Pepi met my great-grandfather, Moses (Morris) Margulies, of Brody in Galicia, while he was visiting Manchester in search of work. Among their surviving documents is an invitation card, printed in German, to their wedding reception in July of 1902, and a rent book from 1902 issued by the letting agent Robert Williamson of 26 Corporation Street confirming weekly payments of six shillings for a property on 32 Mary Street in Cheetham Hill, then the centre of Manchester’s eastern European Jewish community.

Moses was later to produce a diary in six volumes, handwritten in Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Polish and English. Soon after the birth of their first child in 1904, the family returned to Brody, later moving to Prague and then to the Free State of Danzig (now Gdańsk in Poland). My grandmother Rosa Margulies emigrated to Palestine in 1932. Her parents and her eldest brother – the family’s Manchester seed – perished in the Holocaust.

German was my grandmother’s preferred language for singing, reading magazines and solving crossword puzzles, and spontaneous remarks, especially when issuing directives to her husband, a native Russian speaker, who always responded in Hebrew. Both retained passive knowledge of Yiddish, the former first language that their parents had already abandoned in Europe, while their daughters belonged to the first generation of native speakers of Modern Hebrew.

I was raised in the multilingual city of Jerusalem. Hebrew was the language of instruction at school but nearly half the teachers spoke it as their second or third language. As students we would make fun of their foreign accents and grammar mistakes. My awareness of language as a political issue was shaped during a two-year stay in Canada, where as a high school student I was sympathetic toward the French language movement in Québec. Back in Jerusalem at the age of sixteen I was one of few, perhaps even the only Jewish Israeli of my age group who acquired fluency in Palestinian Arabic through direct immersion by choice, crossing the social segregation lines that prevailed at the time. A decade later, as a student in Hamburg, I was one of very few non-Roma in Western Europe to become fluent in the Romani language.

My association with the Roma came about after several years of campaigning in support of refugees and immigrants. I was part of a circle of activists who took inspiration from the works of Stuart Hall and Albert Memmi. We were seeking to theorise anti-racism and a vision for a multicultural society, a concept that in Germany of the 1980s was deeply unpopular in mainstream political discourse. It also found little enthusiasm among the radical left, who regarded preoccupation with culture as a distraction from the class struggle and the anti-imperialist (rather than cosmopolitan) focus of internationalism. I devoted quite a few pages of journalistic contributions to critiquing left wing antisemitism and antigypsyism.

In my research proposal for a PhD scholarship I outlined a reciprocal model of research and engagement drawing on my involvement in a local Romani NGO: I set out to use my skills in the service of their campaign for settlement rights for Roma migrants, using the opportunity to participate in the day-to-day routines of a Romani speaking environment. A Professor who was rather fond of my academic abilities wrote in his very supportive reference letter: “Matras has succeeded in gaining the trust of the Gypsies”. While factually true, his statement missed the point, falling back on stereotypical imagery: Research in local marginalised communities was perceived as successful infiltration, not acknowledged as a participatory partnership.

After graduation, my first full-time job was with the same NGO – which makes me, in all likelihood, the only academic of my generation to have started his professional life working for a Romani boss. When I began as a volunteer a few years earlier I was warned by my employer: “Everything that’s been published about us is wrong”. After I acquired familiarity with four different dialects of the Romani language and an intimate knowledge of Romani customs, I decided to break the reading celibacy that I had self-imposed out of a sense of deference. I discovered that much of what appeared in the books was in fact quite realistic and accurate. I would like to think that that particular experience gave me confidence in the power of academic enquiry to enlighten while helping to protect me, to some degree at least, from the complacent state of having ‘expertise’. It was my passion for the cause of the Roma and their struggle for respect and recognition that opened up a pathway to a rather niche research specialisation in Romani linguistics, which in turn prompted me to embark on an academic career.

My son was born in Manchester after I had moved there to take up a university position in 1995. He grew up speaking German, Hebrew, and English, all languages that had been part of his great-great-grandparents’ repertoire when they lived in Cheetham Hill a century earlier.

When I joined academia I hoped that it could offer opportunities to help make the world a better place, and I believed that academics have a duty to make use of those opportunities: A duty to society, to the community amongst whom we live, and to students who look to us for guidance and direction. Multilingualism represents one of the world’s most exciting characteristics that is all too often turned into a source of pain and suffering: The rich diversity of peoples, cultures, and practice routines contrasts with the imagined demarcation boundaries between communities that human beings erect and defend with such vigour bringing about fear and destruction. To engage with multilingualism is to tackle head on these unnecessary anxieties and the animosities that separate groups of people from one another. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to pioneer an innovative model of teaching, research and public engagement that inspired students and colleagues at home and around the world, was showcased as a local institutional success story, and put multilingualism firmly on the public agenda of the city that my great-grandparents turned their backs to over a century ago. Using academia as an operational base from which to shape attitudes, we led Manchester to brand itself as ‘Britain’s city of languages’.

But in the meantime, academics are struggling more than ever with pressures to deliver on metrics and league tables and to follow compliance protocols designed to protect the corporate executives who run higher education institutions from potential liability claims. Sometimes it even seems that academics themselves are regarded by their own institutions as a liability: Their creative ventures can be perceived as quirky, their originality as insubordinate, and both can be encountered with suspicion and attempts to control and at times even coerce. I for one find myself reflecting about my PhD proposal from thirty years ago, asking myself whether academia in its present form can sustain or even allow the model of reciprocity based on genuine mutual respect and partnership that I experimented with back then. It seems to me that we require stronger structural safeguards to protect us from the elements that can undermine true commitment to social justice, equality, cultural diversity and academic freedom.

I would like this blog to be a space where from time to time I can share observations and opinions on matters that connect to my biography and my interests: How people of diverse backgrounds and cultures come together and find common ground, how language separates and connects us, and how there is more to the civic university idea than owning a brand and selling entry tickets to lectures. I very much welcome contributions from others, including those whose opinions may differ from my own, who may wish to discuss and debate and perhaps persuade. I look forward to such conversations.