elettaria: (Trans-friendly equal marriage symbol)
In the wake of the Woolwich murder, I've been reading a few people who are horrified and alarmed at the strongly racist response that's occurring, both in the media and amongst the general public. This IS my home, you racist swine is an article by a woman talking about her experiences of "'my difference' or to put it in correct terms 'other peoples' racism'". She's Asian British, and I've also been reading responses from people who are black British, or immigrants who are white British.

All this has made me think about racism, ethnicity and identity politics, and how they affect me. The current focus on not only racism, but in particular background in terms of immigration, is making me acutely aware of how much the latter is really about the former. No one has ever told me to "go back". No one has ever questioned my Britishness. I'm not referred to as "Anglo-Polish" in the way that friends of mine, from the same part of London and with the same accent, are sometimes called "Anglo-Indian". Yet my ancestry is solid immigrants a few generations back. People don't think of it because I'm white, with a middle-class London accent, and because a great-grandfather changed the family surname from Brodsky to something unremarkably English. (I should mention now that this blog post is going to be a meditation on my own experiences, rather than a commentary on the aftermath of the Woolwich murder.) I don't feel Polish, that's for certain.

Yet I don't feel completely English. The reason why my family came to England still haunts us. They fled Poland and Russia because they were Jewish, and they raised me to feel that my ethnicity was more Jewish than English. I have friends in the same situation who even tick "white other" on those ethnicity questionnaires. Millennia of being persecuted, of becoming paranoid about persecution as a result, of striving to keep a dwindling culture alive, has had a profound effect on the Jewish identity. Unless you're ultra-Orthodox, however, it's more of a personal issue, one that affects you within your family and the Jewish community rather than from the mainstream British community. Anti-semitism occurs, and I've experienced it, but only rarely, and it tends to be tied up with anti-Israel sentiment in ways which are too complex to go into just now. I can't imagine a newspaper article saying that a suspect is "thought to be Jewish" in the way that they will say "thought to be Muslim". Attacks on synagogues do still occur at times, and I find it amazing to the point of being alien that anybody can walk into a church since I'm used to synagogues having strong security at all times (are mosques the same?), but yes, I'd say that anti-semitism in Britain is relatively small-scale, and it's not something which directly affects day-to-day existence for the vast majority of Jews.

A Twitter conversation about when do you stop being considered an immigrant, which generation should it be, where I wryly remarked that it seems to be mostly about your skin colour and your surname, led to my mentioning that my being raised to consider myself more Jewish than English was problematic in its own way. Someone replied, "I don't think it's 'problematic' to have a Jewish ethnic identity." I'm still not sure what they were trying to say by that, they haven't elaborated since then, but I remain surprised and puzzled. Even more so when I mentioned that to a friend, and she also turned out to be assuming that being Jewish wasn't inherently problematic. Of course it's inherently problematic! Maybe it's because the problems come more from within the Jewish community, so they're less visible to outsiders? Maybe they were just thinking more in terms of how you're treated by people outside your community, whereas I was thinking of identity within that community? Here are a few ways in which I find it problematic to be Jewish in Britain:

* There is massive pressure to marry a Jew and raise Jewish children. When I was a child, my family would treat the non-Jewish girlfriends of various cousins and uncles as second-class citizens at best, and make it very clear that they were not considered marriage material. This usually involved guilt-tripping about members of my uncle's family who died in Auschwitz, and how they had to "keep the [surname] line going". I dread to think of what they said when I wasn't there. At university, the Jewish Society hired a speaker to talk to us about the "vanishing diaspora", who basically told us that it was our duty to marry a Jew, because as a race, we're dying out. We all looked at each other nervously, wondering whether we were expected to pick a spouse from the small group of people in the room.

My family's attitude isn't as bad as it could be, considering that I'm from a Reform background rather than an Orthodox one. My great-grandmother, who was apparently determinedly English and very prudish, once told my mother that, "sleeping with a non-Jewish man was like sleeping with a pig." (Once you're past the nasty shock of that degree of anti-non-Jewish sentiment, the question does arise, "How did she know?") She wasn't alone in using such language. If you've ever heard the term "shiksa", the term specifically used to refer to a non-Jewish woman (do other faiths or cultures have such terms?), usually one who's had the temerity to set her sights on a Jew, you may not have realised that it's the Yiddish for a female goat. I received a fair amount of flak from my family for having non-Jewish partners, and many people have been disowned for "marrying out". To the point where their parents sat shiva, which is the ritual mourning done for the dead. Yeah. That much pressure. There's an extra edge to being nagged about producing children, too. Quite a lot of sexism is bound up in these attitudes, you may have noticed.

* There is massive pressure to identify as a Jew, whatever your religious inclinations are. A large proportion of Jews are atheists and still continue to practise Judaism. I knew a man who attended an Orthodox synagogue regularly, despite being not only an atheist but also gay. Most Jews think of it as a family thing far more than a religious thing. (This, by the way, is why I find it completely ludicrous when people reduce being a member of a religion to the single question of whether or not you believe in a deity. It's just not that high on the list for most Jews.) When I realised that I was an atheist, I stopped going to synagogue, because to me Judaism is primarily a religion and I felt it would be hypocritical. My family and my former Jewish community were both horrified. I received years of nagging from my family, some of it rather nasty, some of it blaming my then-partner for turning me away from Judaism (nonsense). Friends who knew perfectly well that I no longer identified as Jewish would ring me up to wish me Chag Sameach and enquire where I was going for Passover.

When I made my former community a small quilt and went to a Friday night service to present it to them, they kept on crowding around, asking why I'd left, and mostly asking if I'd converted to another religion. Evidently that was the only valid reason they could think of. When I said that no, I'd just realised that I'm an atheist and it no longer felt appropriate to engage in religious worship, and incidentally I'd become too ill to keep going to services anyway, they reacted with utter bafflement. It wasn't pleasant. This continued whenever I ran into anyone from that community, for years, and included some rather inappropriate attempts to get me to return. It's a pity, they're nice people. Unfortunately, I think a few too many of them don't want to know someone who's "stopped being Jewish" - if they even accept that it's possible to stop being Jewish. "Does not compute" was the main reaction I got.

It's seen as the ultimate betrayal. Your ancestors died in Auschwitz - OK, your ancestors might have been living in leafy Muswell Hill at the time, but as part of the Jewish people, your ancestors died in Auschwitz - so who are you to say you're not Jewish? "They'd be Jewish according to Hitler," was a favourite phrase of my mother's, used in scorn to describe anyone who had decided they no longer identified as Jewish, or even just someone who'd chosen to marry a non-Jew and raise their children as an interfaith family. I should mention in passing that not all Jewish communities or families are like that, and that Liberal Judaism in particular is very welcoming of interfaith families. Although even Liberal Judaism has a page on their website where they say that they'd prefer the non-Jewish spouse to convert to Judaism if at all possible. Anyway, a lot of this stems from the, "We have been persecuted! We must cling together!" mindset. The Passover seder is a group, usually family, retelling of the exodus from Egypt ("when we were slaves in the house of bondage" - try saying that with a straight face when you're a teenager). Even though it's describing something that happened thousands of years ago and is unreliably described in biblical texts rather than hard historical fact, it's still felt to resonate strongly.

* There is a massive culture attached. There is a language, a literature, a musical tradition which is rather annoyingly mostly oral so plenty gets lost, and an enormous culinary tradition. Claudia Roden's fabulous The Book of Jewish Food is sometimes informally known as "A History of the Jews Through Their Stomachs". Food is a big part of cultural identity, especially if you're Jewish, and Jews have for thousands of years had a complicated set of dietary restrictions which were designed to set them apart from the rest of the country they were living in. (I'm quoting the anthropologist Mary Douglas here, who also notes that the word for "sacred" in many languages comes from the word for "separate".) Even the fast days are marked by their own recipes in Jewish cookbooks, it's so food-focused. I still use that cookbook, and I still feel a wave of longing when I hear a well-sung version of a familiar bit of the Jewish liturgy. Hell, I even feel nostalgic when I hear the surprisingly Jewish-sounding violin solo in the Bach aria "Erbarme dich", which is from the St Matthew Passion. If you meet someone who also turns out to have a Jewish background, you instantly have something in common, which you can make jokes about which non-Jews will find completely impenetrable and surreal.

Even if you're not religious, you probably take the day off for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and holiest day of the year, and there was a sort of solidarity with the other Jewish girls at my school about such matters. There are two New Years, and the Jewish one in autumn was the really noteworthy one. When Christian culture rubs up against you, you feel subtly out of place. Hymn-singing at school was uncomfortable, and I had to make a conscious effort to get used to singing lots of Christian music, because as a musician and particularly a choral singer that's standard repertoire. Hearing rhetoric about how it's a Christian country and we should be living by Christian values made me feel that I simply wasn't a part of this country, and I know damn well that racist political groups wouldn't accept me as British for a moment. A university tutor was shocked when I admitted that I still didn't quite grasp the Christian concept of "grace", as if it was something everyone knew, part of your basic background as a Brit. (I think he was being optimistic about the level of education amongst his students.) Literature has always been my main love, I studied English literature at university, and even after a thorough and enthusiastic grounding in the literature of my country, I still feel more of a visceral pull towards Jewish traditions. They're something I've lived, in a way that Shakespeare and Chaucer aren't. Jane Austen's characters spoke English, yes, but they also went to church and ate ham. And when it comes to music, most of what I play and sing isn't English anyway, though it's largely Christian, and I relate to Britten more as someone LGBT than as someone English.

So yes, you end up feeling subtly out of place as a British Jew. Enough that hearing about immigration and questions about Britishness make you pause and think about how you fit in. I'm still struggling with whether or not to define myself as a Jew in the first place, and tend to use terms like "from a Jewish background" or "ethnically Jewish" these days. I am fully aware that I am still intensely privileged in this respect, and this is in no way meant to suggest that I feel that I'm at risk. People of colour in Britain are in fear for their safety as a result of the Woolwich crime. I'm as much the descendent of immigrants as they are, and I'm not in that danger. Jews are reasonably well-assimilated, as immigrant-descended groups go, and are not entirely sure that they want to be. The whole system is entirely screwed up.

To return to the Woolwich situation, I also want to say that I too am absolutely horrified at the amount of racism coming out in response, and concerned about the safety of people of colour and Muslims. I'm thinking of you, and I hope you stay safe.
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January 2014

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