I have always been open, if not outspoken, about my heritage. I would passionately debate the best bagel shop in London (Sharon’s in Edgware, obviously), host Chanukah parties full of chocolate coins and gifts for my non-Jewish friends, and introduce everyone I could to my wonderful paternal grandparents. They represented my favourite part of being Jewish – the culture. They were staunchly atheist but grew up with fairly religious parents from Poland and Russia who had fled persecution and settled in the UK. It is a unique and remarkable token of Judaism that belief in god can exist so distinctly from any sense of Jewishness.
But more recently I had come to repress my Jewish identity. After years of feeling safe in left-wing spaces as a campaigner and organiser for prison abolition and climate action, I’d begun to witness and experience systematic antisemitism.
It wasn’t, of course, my first experience of this. At university, a housemate once asked me if I had turned down a dinner invitation because I was “Jewish and didn’t want to pay.” A trainer at my gym who was trying to get his business off the ground told me he couldn’t ask the “wealthy Jewish businessmen” for support as they “only helped their own kind.” I tended to shrug off comments like these, mainly because as a white Jew, I have always understood that I am protected by my ability to hide my Jewishness. I enjoy all the advantages of whiteness, and on a systemic level I benefit from the inherent value placed on my white life. I relegated any abuse I faced to a position of comparative unimportance.
But fast-forward a few years and antisemitism was inescapably everywhere. When Jeremy Corbyn was elected as Leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, so began countless allegations of antisemitism within the Party and, with them, the hostile atmosphere they created. The reality was that many British Jews felt unsafe in a way they hadn’t for a long time.
In the months leading up to the 2019 General Election, this abuse ramped up. At the time I was involved in climate action with what would be widely considered a ‘progressive’ group. What took me most by surprise was the reaction from left-wing commentators and activists to the allegations: most were dismissed, ignored or belittled, with those making the claims called liars, ostracised from the Party and becoming targets of racial abuse.
I was stunned by the level of antisemitism in the responses. Tropes I knew existed but had rarely heard out loud – about the Jewish-owned media pulling a smear campaign, George Soros funding anti-Corbyn messaging, secret Zionist deals set to undermine the Party – reined free, unchecked and even endorsed, often with vigour, by my fellow campaigners. I fumbled my way through trying to address the issue, barely knowing how and what to say, but I was met with the same dismissal. It was exhausting.
It was only when I was confronted with such insidious and unrelenting antisemitism that I began to recognise that my whiteness was subjective. To many, including to many of those I was working alongside, I was the wrong sort of white. I started to question whether the privilege of hiding my identity was really a privilege at all. Jewish history is pockmarked with persecution and, like other forms of generational trauma, it runs through our DNA. When antisemitism arises, the fear is visceral. For the first time in my life, I not only stopped telling people I was Jewish, but internally my Jewishness brought up only negative emotions of fear, sadness and helplessness. Eventually, I left that group behind, drained, frustrated and with a sense of fractured identity that I continued to grapple with for many months.
I count myself very lucky to celebrate both Christmas and Chanukah every year. Although my family is Jewish on both sides, my mum’s side is more observant so I enjoy eight nights of doughnuts and gifts with them every December. Christmas was spent with my other grandparents whose atheism, in contrast, was so fierce that any discussion of religion was met with humorous disdain. I once jokingly texted my grandpa a happy Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and he came back with, “Who’s that and does he play for Spurs?”
Christmas always involved a traditional lunch of turkey, roast potatoes and eight different types of gedempte (very well-done) vegetables, followed too soon after by an insurmountable dinner of bagels, smoked salmon, my grandma’s fishcakes, Vienna sausages and Bloom’s vursht, a chemically-pink Jewish salami that is probably only about 10 percent meat. Jewish Christmas, we call it.
Last year, a few days after Christmas, I had gone round to my grandparents’ house to collect my present which had arrived late, much to my grandma’s annoyance. I knew it was a book of some kind because in her usual direct style, she had told me. She had once given me a One Direction fan book so I didn’t have high hopes, but when I opened the insalubrious Amazon parcel that she had kicked towards me, sat socially distanced on the front porch, I was thrilled to find The New Joys of Learning Yiddish by Leo Rosten inside.
Both my grandparents spoke the language fluently; it was my grandpa’s mother tongue. Yiddish, the original language of Ashkenazi (Eastern-European) Jews, is beautifully emotive and often hard to translate literally. Its idioms are felt rather than heard, full of raging insults imbued with comic genius. Having been almost wiped out as a result of the Holocaust, it is now mainly spoken by Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. However, to me and my atheist family, at least, its roots are more cultural than religious. I treasure it for its defiance, a reminder that neither our community nor our spirit can be eradicated despite centuries of persecution.
The New Joys of Yiddish was a dense tome with that glorious new-book smell. Even reading the title brought a few tears to my eyes. After so long of feeling disconnected and almost ashamed of my Jewishness, this book seemed to me to represent the root of my culture. Yiddish links together a diasporic community driven apart by persecution. It is the language of my grandparents, who would deftly insert its emotive words and phrases into their daily speech, influencing my own language. I loved them, I loved the Yiddish they spoke and I loved what it meant to be part of a community that shared its associated history.
I opened the book and instantly searched for my favourite phrases, the ones my family used most often: mishegas – ‘madness’ – shtick naar – ‘a real fool’ – shmeggegge – ‘a whiny person’. As I flicked through the pages, I felt the sweet comfort of my cultural pride slowly seep back into my being. Seeing these words written out, eternalised, protected and nourished helped me begin the process of reconnecting to a feeling I had spent years burying so deeply. I looked up at the smile on my grandma’s face as she watched me reading it. “I knew you’d like this,” she said. She probably didn’t know just how much I needed it as well.
Antisemitism was a popular topic of conversation growing up: my grandpa had anglicised our family surname as a young adult so our very identity was a product of it. When I experienced it, two generations later, they were disgusted and horrified – but they weren’t surprised. Although antisemitism continues to fester in society, in a small but significant way that book serves as a strong reminder to draw on the best parts of my heritage. “Were I asked to characterise Yiddish – its style, its life story, its ambience – in one word, I would not hesitate: irrepressible,” writes the book’s author, Leo Rosten. I strive to apply this same irrepressibility to my Jewishness, to shed the fear that built up over a long period of time and re-embrace everything my family and my culture have given me with renewed delight and pride.
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Image: Resli Tale/Penguin