It’s a funny thing. My dad was Jewish. But it’s the mother’s Jewishness that renders any children Jewish. So I’m half Jewish, but on the “wrong” side. It means, broadly, that Jewish people probably wouldn’t see me as properly “one of them”, but then Gentiles also, when they find out, see me as “different”.
Herod, also, was Jewish on his father’s side. The same applied to him, all those years ago.
I wasn’t brought up Jewish. No synagogue, no candles on a Friday night, no seder night. But we did learn from my Dad a couple of Jewish prayers, and he used to say that more business was done in schul than in the week. Mum used to make some lovely Jewish recipes – passover pancakes for one. Must dig that out and make it again myself.
Dad had rejected his Judaism as a young man. His mother and father had died within a year of each other. A Jewish custom is to commemorate, on the anniversary of a death, that person. It’s called Jahrzeit. The synagogue he then attended (probably the main one in Birmingham in Blucher Street, known locally as Singer’s Hill) was being redecorated when Jahrzeit came round for his dad. So, instead of holding the ceremony in another synagogue (which would be more liberal), they held it in a cloakroom downstairs. Dad said there were coat pegs sticking in everybody’s backs and necks. He felt that a religion which could disrespect the dead like that wasn’t worth a candle. No pun intended. So he gave it up. But never stopped being Jewish.
He had a bowler hat he would never wear because it made him look “too Jewish”. He would do a “Jewish” face. He had to have his nose altered because it was so long he couldn’t leave a cigarette in his mouth without it burning the end of his nose.
He was brought up Jewish. Fairly kosher, but not very very strict. Two sets of crockery and cutlery (one for milk, one for meat). A mezuzah on the door (a little tiny box with a small quotation from the Torah). They went to schul on a Saturday. Dad was the youngest male member of the family, so he got to “ask the question” on a seder night (Why is this night different from all other nights?). I can actually say it in Hebrew but don’t know how to spell it in English.
His family fled Spain in the Inquisition, to Poland. Dad traced his family tree back that far, to the 15th century. Amazing. The family name was probaby Anglicised to Gordon from something like Gould, or Gold.
Anyway, this is all just burbling about Dad. My Jewishness – well, it seems to me that it’s much more about tradition than anything else. I have read a trilogy of books by a Jewish author, all about Judaism, including one character who’s a convert (a whole can of worms there!), and I felt strongly that tradition was much important than any God.
Then of course there’s the “thing” about whether one is a Jew, or Jewish. I was always taught that you must never say He’s a Jew, you must always say He’s Jewish. So when I hear somebody say, for example “you mean you’re a second generation Jew?!” – which has actually happened to me – my stomach knots up. I was having this discussion with my better half on Saturday, and he said “well, your Dad was a Jew” and I had to tell him it makes my guts churn to hear it said like that. It feels like an insult, like it’s something not nice. But Jewish seems to convey mild, ordinary respect .
I also had somebody once say that the Jews were responsible for the Holocaust. I was shocked. Why? How? Because they were the only people prospering in a recession. What? What ? ? So, then, that means they should be treated like animals and massacred in the millions? I think not. So that’s a conversation I am not having with that particular person. It’s just too raw and difficult.
At the beginning of “Fiddler on the Roof” there’s a song as introduction to life in the shtetl. The chorus is “Tradition”. The lyrics are questionable “and who does mama teach to mend and sew and fix? The daughters!” and so on. But the most interesting line comes when Tevye (Topol) says “And who started this tradition? I’ll tell you. I don’t know”. Hmm. Interesting.
I think any God or any religion at all is just a construct. We just made it all up. It was natural and understandable hundreds and hundreds of years ago, when we just didn’t have the knowledge or the science to understand the wonderful phenomena of nature, to invent a supernatural being (or several) to explain it all. But now we do have the knowledge and the science. And the evidence, importantly. And religion, in my head, seems to be the excuse for all sorts of repression and violence and cruelty, particularly to women.
I’d like, during my short life, to make a small difference, to try and be kind. I don’t go around stealing, looting, robbing and generally being awful any more than anybody else. Not because of religion, but because human nature is basically good. The bits of human nature that aren’t good, like, for instance, selfishness, I fight against and try to overcome. My main “sin”, however, is chocolate . . .
I do “feel” Jewish, though, despite my non-religiousness. I wonder if this outpouring has anything to do with Holocaust Memorial Day, and the fact that I’m reading Christopher Hitchens’ “Hitch 22”, where he tells us how he accidentally discovered that he also had Jewish roots.
And there, I’m going to stop. For now.