It’s just a place (What I’ve learnt about being Jewish in strange new places)

I guess what tribe I belong to can't only be explained on scientific, or genealogical lines. Maybe I simply shudder in a particular way when I hear the name 'Adolf Hitler'. Maybe Jews aren't related just by blood but in our synapses?

An outing in Madrid

On Friday evening, I was heartened by the welcome I received in Madrid’s Reform Jewish community, close to where I live. It’s not as though I was expecting a cold reception, but I’ve had many varied experiences over the years visiting synagogues and centres of Jewish culture.

I will come to why in a few moments.

There’s a lyric I find especially resonant in ‘Anatevka‘, one of my favourite songs from ‘Fiddler on the roof‘. Amazingly, ‘Fiddler on the roof‘ soon celebrates its fiftieth anniversary since its cinematic release. Here’s the lyric that touches me…

Soon I’ll be a stranger in a strange new place,
Searching for an old familiar face

The community of Anatevka, understood to be a Shtetl in what we now call Ukraine, faces the imminent threat of a pogrom as the Tsar’s army look to forcibly displace them.

One of the community acknowledges the threat, but only by flatly reminding Tevye (played by Topol) and his neighbours that their ancestors had experienced many such threats, and on many occasions, they too had to leave what they supposed was their ‘home’ for a distant new place.

I can hardly compare myself to Topol’s Tevye (I don’t have anything like the charm, or indeed his singing voice), but I too felt like a stranger in a strange place when I entered Comunidad Judia Reformista de Madrid (CJRM). Soon, though, I received such a warm welcome. I wasn’t searching for old, familiar faces, but nevertheless, I did find familiar characters and personalities.

There was the open-hearted President of the community, with her curly, syrup-brown, hair. She invited those of us in attendance to consider the contemporary significance of Noah’s story, and what it means to start again in a broken world (I scarcely understood a word, but my goodness, I did appreciate her Spanish pronunciation, and how she enunciated every word. There were such soft cadences to her singing voice).

There were community members I could plausibly come across in many other reform and liberal congregations around the world: the older Jewish women who helped to correct me, quite directly, but with the very best intentions, and the Jewish men who were whipsmart, never missing a gag, never missing an opportunity to make a thoughtful connection in the flow of joyful conversation.

No longer a stranger, even though I’m in a new place?

They were familiar faces – not ‘old faces’ as such, but people who talked like me.

They shrugged like other Jews.

Some had the common rasp to their voice that I find many Jewish people have, (that I instantly recognise, and which sees me point out to my partner, ‘ah, they must be Jewish’, even when my back is turned).

They were people I felt I had the measure of.

Hebrew, the common denominator

It was cheering to be in a sanctuary, in the middle of one of the world’s most Catholic countries, where, regardless of our different nationalities, we could connect over Hebrew songs and familiar verses. There were Jews from Serbia there, and from Australia, and the United States. All I needed was to hear the introduction of V’shamru, and I was tapping my feet. So too, it seemed, were some of the others.

My basic Spanish may well have worked as a barrier to communication, but how unique it is, to unite with Spaniards, or Italians if I visit Rome, Tahitians if I visit Papeete, or the Portuguese if I visit Oporto, and know my means of connecting with some of these foreigners will be our common experience of singing Hebrew.

A question, then.

Are these ‘my people?’ Are these people ‘my people’ because they’re ethnically Jewish?


My varying levels of comfort

One of the oddest things about my experiences of attending synagogues over the years, or indeed any space centred around Jewish community or cultural life, is that I have had such varied experiences. When I reflect, perhaps what’s most telling is how comfortable and integrated I feel in these spaces (or not), and how this varies to the degree that it does.

So, while many Jews I meet will indeed have heard the prayer ‘Hear, O, Israel: the Eternal One is Our God, the Eternal One is One’ (Deuteronomy 6:4), and will know, however basic their introduction to, or schooling in, Jewish history, that our history is one of a nomadic people, wandering for however many dozens, or hundreds of years, —- and many might indeed have distinguishing tics or quirks of personality, this doesn’t mean, in the end, we’re one community.

This isn’t a blog post about the twelve tribes of Israel or the etymology of ‘Hebrew’ or the possibility that we Jews might – all of us – descend from one of Noah’s descendants.

I’m not interested here in proving or disproving we are ‘one people’, whatever that means.

I am focused on the highly personal question of what causes me to feel so remarkably at ease, and immersed in some Jewish spaces, and so utterly cold and foreign in others.

Tahitian tale

A year ago I was in French Polynesia. Yes, I kept that secret. For good reason. I will blog about this separately in the coming weeks.

What I wish to relay here is one of the more recent experiences that illustrates how utterly out-of-place I can feel in some ‘Jewish’ spaces. Incidentally, I don’t have a decent definition for ‘Jewish spaces’ other than to suggest they’re places designed for Jews to congregate, for prayer, or for community functions and so forth.

I had a magical few months living in Tahiti and the Society Islands, but on the final day in Papeete, the capital, I decided to visit the synagogue, a charming complex of buildings incongruously located between high-rises, and close to a Chinese temple. I was ostensibly there to interview one of the men who’d been sent from France by Chabad, a religious organisation, to officiate and oversee the religious life of the community. I guess he was what one might refer to as a Rabbi-in-training.

He seemed fairly unclear what to do with me, so he suggested we go to his marital bedroom, which was a peculiar space indeed.

Put it like this. The sheets were unmade. His bed was there opposite us, with a huge, blown-up photo of him and his wife perched above the bed, and he could only speak French, so I asked him my interview questions in my best French. He seemed distinctly uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable.

He asked me what newspaper I worked for, and I said I was hoping to pitch a piece to a community magazine based on the Jewish community of Tahiti, but no, I wasn’t working for The Daily Mail or The Daily Telegraph.

A merry mix-up

He provided curt answers, showed absolutely no warmth, and I was so nervous by the end, that on waving goodbye, when he wished me well, knowing the festive season was approaching, instead of wishing him ‘Happy Hannukah’, I wished him a “Merry Christmas”!

Of course, it was a mistake.

This Rabbi-in-training peered at me, through his horn-rimmed spectacles, and down his nose, and instead of waving away my embarrassment, pointedly replied, “No, Happy Channukah“.

I knew not to expect any cards from him. Not that year, not ever.

He didn’t respond to my email requests for clarifications to follow up our interview, and that was the last I heard from Tahiti’s synagogue.

Every other day of that trip, however many mosquitos bit me, I vibrated with the colours that surrounded me. Gauguin’s mauves and pinks and lime greens gave me such a spring to my step. After a couple of adjustment issues, Tahiti was suffused for me with smiles and uncomplicated, unquestioning joy.

The one Jew on the island that I met? Well, he sent me away shivering.


The good, the bad, and the inexplicably inhospitable

So, if we are ethnically the same, so what, right?

So what that we share the same faith?

Does sharing a common faith make the Queen anything like Donald Trump, or for that matter, Boris Johnson?

That’s not quite my point here. Of course, we’re not bound, anyone of us, for any reason – be it our nationality, our faith, our ethnicity or race – to be the same by virtue of these characteristics.

I’m simply interested in why being in Jewish spaces specifically provokes such wildly different emotional responses for me. That’s my focus here.

Why this past five years did I absolutely love and get carried away with interviews and guided visits I made to synagogues and Jewish cultural spaces in Oporto, Tallinn, Vilnius and – one space – in Lviv, but why did I find in another, more orthodox setting in Lviv, I felt inadequate, a fraud, not entirely welcome?

Why even when I was interviewing the very Orthodox Rabbi of Tallinn for a newspaper article I wrote for a Jewish newspaper did I feel that I was an impostor, that even though I was wearing a Star of David necklace around my neck, I was not quite a proper Jew? When this Rabbi asked whether I’d ever fulfilled the ritual of placing Tefillin around my sleeve, and I shook my head, ‘no’, why then, did I feel like a child, or being judged? Was I in awe, or simply afraid, perhaps even envious, of the better Jew, the purer Jew, the actual Jew?

The amateur Jew

I well remember the days my family arrived late for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services and I felt we were a family of amateurs, the lot of us, never appearing in a synagogue for the rest of the year, none of us able to recite the Kaddish prayer for mourners. To me, Dad’s behaviour, trying to find us seats at the front of the vast synagogue hall, felt garish. We simply didn’t have the pedigree, I privately thought, to warrant us sitting so close to the Rabbi.

So a Jew who feels an impostor among Jews?

Blooming heck, talk about stereotypes.

Woody Allen-esque angst, eat your heart out.

Hebrew script - or is it?

There was an occasion, twenty years ago I reckon when in the summer holidays I was a tour guide for a motley crew of Jewish kids from Marseilles and Paris. They were mostly orthodox – with names that sounded authentically Jewish, not like my anglicised name. They had first names such as Dov, and surnames such as Horowitz. They were mostly darker-haired, and to some people, I suppose, I was considered blonde. They looked Jewish. Some of them dressed the part too, with their tzitzit tassels under their shirts.

Where was I supposed to fit in?

One Friday evening, as the sunset approached and the Sabbath too, I was saddled with two kids who were staying with an ultra-Orthodox family in Hendon, north London. For those of you who don’t know, it is home to a significant Jewish population. It was where the Sebastián Lelio film, Disobedience, starring Rachel Weisz, was set. And then on returning them to their host family, I realised my Nokia mobile was broken. Ka-put. I needed to borrow somebody else’s phone to call my Dad. I’d be home late.

Pointing scribes

The parents, who didn’t look like they’d be out of place in Anatevka, looked at me with a ghostly look of suspicion. They agreed to me using their home telephone, but only if I could guarantee I would be out of their home by the time the Sabbath came in. They must have felt duty-bound because a slice of bread with tuna paste was served up for me to gobble down. But I had one overriding impression. They didn’t consider me a Jew, not from the way I was dressed. I was not particularly welcome.

So I returned home, where we laughed about these other ‘Jews’, from the other side of the historical and religious tracks. And who knows, they may have laughed about me, and let’s hope they did – they looked like they needed a laugh!

Deep down, though, laugh as we did, I still felt at my core, a strange Jew, an incomplete Jew, the actor.

Tribes and train tracks

This past couple of years I’ve felt more culturally Jewish than I did as a child.

As a child, I enjoyed cold cuts of delicatessen salami and Jamón as we watched Formula 1 qualifying to the strained commentary of the BBC’s Murray Walker. We had the television on. I worked Saturday shifts. I was not kosher. My family were not at all observant. And it was no irony, not in our eyes, that we then followed the salami with smoked salmon bagels filled to the brim with Philadelphia cheese.

I hope – it’s taking the courts long enough – that my surname will soon change to Kauffmann.

I’ve chosen Kauffmann with two ‘f’s’ and two ‘n’s’ as the spelling for my changed name, returning it to my paternal grandfather’s name before he anglicised it in 1939. Don’t get me started on all the other possible spellings I could have chosen.

Next March, I hope to travel through parts of Lithuania and Poland I haven’t yet visited, researching some of my family’s origins in towns such as Sakiai (Lithuania) and Packanów (Poland).

I will be forty. I feel it’s time to at last visit Auschwitz-Birkenau.

When I talk of tracks, and the other side of tracks that other Jews might come from, how dare I?

We do share one thing in common.

Throughout history, in fact.

However we might sometimes quarrel, or dislike one another, even – we joke Jews can make the best anti-Semites – our enemies will always see us as one and the same.

To our enemies, we are Jewish, whether we practise our faith or not.

As David Baddiel commented in his book, Jews Don’t Count, the Nazis didn’t count how many times the Jews they rounded up had been to a synagogue. Whatever their religiosity, whomever they had married, if they were deemed racially Jewish, they were targeted.

When I was in London over the summer, I went to see Sir Tom Stoppard’s new play ‘Leopoldstadt’. It wasn’t quite what I was hoping it would be, but there were many moving and poignant moments. One of these saw two characters debating the essence of their Jewishness, and whether in fin-de-siècle 19th century Vienna, being culturally Austrian – whether assimilating – would ever act as a barrier to anti-Semitism.

One character, more rooted one might say in his Jewish identity, remonstrates with the other, do you really think all your culture will act as a barrier against barbarism, against brutality, because when it comes, and it surely will come, as throughout history it always has as far as Jews are concerned, do you really think your airs and graces and dinners with the Viennese elites will save you — from being a Jew?

You and I are one and the same, whatever our lifestyles, we are from the same side of the tracks.

Sally Rooney & acting emotionally, maybe even irrationally

I guess what tribe I belong to can’t only be defined on scientific or genealogical lines.

Maybe I simply shudder in a particular way when I hear the name ‘Adolf Hitler’. To be precise, it’s a shudder and a reflex squeezing of the shoulders.

Where have I inherited such unlearned behaviour from?

Are we Jews in blood, and in our synapses?

Are some Jews characteristically considered to be hypervigilant, anxious, fretful, over-ambitious, over-sensitive and so forth because, in social evolutionary terms, it’s served us darn well to be these things? To survive, to move, as Topol and his community in Anatevka did, from one threat, and then onwards, only to duck another?

What gets passed down from one generation to the next, within a particular clan or tribe? Are we forever bound to these shared values and behaviours, or can we break free from the patterns of behaviour that might not serve us?

This is one of the questions I am threading throughout the book I’m writing.

Why do I react so forcefully to a silly little story about the author, Sally Rooney, choosing to boycott an Israeli publishing company because of their apparent links to the Occupation in the West Bank? Maybe, because in her public disapproval of Israeli publishers, and not others, in other countries with their own record of human rights abuses, she’s touching a raw nerve – for me, yes – but for many Jews. Many of us are, yes, perhaps, oversensitive, irrational

History has given us our reasons.

As I research my book, I’ve come across the 1903 Royal Commission on Alien Immigration, established by Parliament. My great-great-grandfather, Joseph Finn, still an Alien at that point and not yet naturalised, gave evidence to the Committee in his local neighbourhood, Stepney. He didn’t feel the Parliamentarians were listening, not Major Evans or any of the other esteemed members.

He was pointing out that many ‘Aliens’ – namely, the Russian and Polish Jews fleeing pogroms, or who sought refuge as economic migrants, men not unlike Topol in Fiddler on the Roof – were bringing new skills to their industries. They were improving the UK economy. They needn’t be treated as criminals.

But the 1905 Alien Act was passed, and while it’s not the anti-Semitic law of folklore, it wasn’t a particularly hospitable piece of legislation for new Jewish arrivals to Great Britain.

Yes, time has moved on.

The threats appear, for the most part, to have changed.

And I still feel so amazingly at home and comfortable in some Jewish spaces, and so intangibly out-of-place in others.

But if in my lifetime, as in my own ancestors’ lifetimes, serious threats against Jews should yet again emerge, I rather suppose there will be the one tribe I belong to. The one safe space.

Jewish spaces.

However assimilated and British, and European, and liberal and cultured I like to think I am.

I will be seeking out those old familiar faces in those strange new places.

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