Sunday, December 24, 2006 at 10:45 PM
So, I’ve been to quite a few “holiday” parties lately, many of them parties where I literally knew no one and had to stick my hand out and introduce myself, which can be quite good fun when the mood is on you. One such was the Guardian Christmas party last week (very good party, thanks for having me 🙂 ), at which I was surprised to find that, when I stuck my hand out, some people did say something along the lines of “oh, you’re that girl who wrote that Jewish book”. Which is certainly a pleasant sensation. I haven’t yet been doing this long enough to have got tired or feel typecast, evidently.
Anyway, at the Guardian party I met a couple of people who said, after getting names out of the way, “you know, I’m Jewish myself but I never talk about it”. Or words to that effect. In fact, I’ve had this a lot, not just this year but since I started writing the book. At UEA, three people in my MA Creative Writing class ‘came out’ to me as being Jewish. They always did it privately, always a little uncertain. I’ve had it since: famous writers at literary events mention in passing that their mother is Jewish, or their mother’s mother. People who’ve interviewed me for newspapers come out with it at the end of our conversation.
These aren’t secular Jews, comfortable in their identity but uninterested in their religion. They aren’t even non-identifying Jews who think that Jewishness is simply unimportant. These are people who know they’re Jewish (or know their mother was Jewish, or their grandmother) but don’t know what to do with that information. They don’t know what it means, or where to place it in their landscape. Often, I feel that the subtext of our conversation is the desire for an answer to that question: what does it mean to be a Jew? Which, it has to be said, I don’t have an answer for.
The number of these people I’ve met makes me wonder whether the census survey vastly under-reports the number of Jews in Britain. None of these people would ever put their religion or ethnicity on the census as ‘Jewish’. If they know that their mother’s mother was Jewish, and I say “oh, well you’re definitely one of us then” that’s generally greeted with suprise. But pleasure too – the pleasure is obvious and immediate.
I feel privileged, actually, to hear these people’s stories. They’re stories which are, by their nature, lost from the mainstream robustly Orthodox Judaism I grew up with. One person had been teased in the playground about being a ‘Jew’, but his parents denied it – only when they died did he discover the truth. Many people come up with a behaviour or a speech pattern of the Jewish parent or grandparent and say “is that Jewish? is that what it is?” And sometimes I can say “yes, feeding you till you thought you might pop is Jewish”, and sometimes I can’t.
I feel lucky to have enough knowledge that Jewishness isn’t so opaque to me, and happy to be able to explain these people to themselves in whatever marginal way. But often, in retrospect, I feel slightly uncomfortable. I’m not an arbiter of Jewishness. I have, it must be obvious from the novel, deep-seated and intractable problems with Judaism, at the same time that it is a part of my heart. It makes me feel that we should be doing more, though, to reach out to anyone who wants to be a part of our world. To say “yes, you are a Jew” more often, to give information without attempting to push observance. The only organisations that are really doing this kind of outreach now are the fundamentalist groups, trying to make all Jews in the world Orthodox. Which is their thing, and fair play to ’em. But I wish there were someone doing something more simple: just saying here we are, Jewish, come and find out what a world of different things that can mean.