Ambivalent Jewishness

Ambivalent Jewishness

As antisemitism is on the rise again, Gloria Tessler asks if some of us feel a certain ambivalence about our Jewishness.

My parents, both European refugees, had a deep-rooted belief in God and the values of Judaism; they were not religious – we rarely went to shul – but they were not secular either. Like many people who tick no boxes, they were spiritually minded with a strong Jewish consciousness who had lived through the worst of Europe’s crimes against humanity, yet still held on to the deeper values of their faith.

They were also blissfully unaware of what sending a young child to a strictly Orthodox primary school meant. For me, it meant going shopping with the au pair on Saturday afternoons, while my parents were at work, and running the gauntlet of my religious classmates, who pointed at our shopping bags and stage-whispered: ‘Look; she’s carrying on Shabbos!’ Worse than this I dreaded the prospect of bumping into our terrifying headmaster, a Jewish version of Northern Ireland’s late tempestuous Ian Paisley if ever there was one. The thought of being discovered by him out shopping on Shabbat was too awful a fate to even contemplate.

I have spent years since then pondering what it means to be Jewish. What it meant then and now. People are said to be proud to be Jewish. I was not proud of being Jewish at that scary school. I was proud of learning about the travails of the Children of Israel – I thought of them as real children like me, performing the most amazing mental and physical feats to reach the Promised Land!

As I grew older I was proud of Israel and its embattled attempts to hold on to its very integrity. I was proud of the Jewish values that my parents, and partly the school, engendered in me, perhaps more from osmosis than learning. I was proud of my early grasp of Jewish history and what it reflected back to us about caring, about selflessness, about the term Tikkun ha-Olam (repairing the world), although I wouldn’t have understood a word of what that meant then.

And yet, from those early years of feeling different – different from other Jewish children, different from non-Jewish children – I realised that my religious values contained an element of ambivalence.

You have to know where you belong, my parents advised me. Antisemitism will always rear its ugly head. And so, while studying English literature and falling in love with TS Eliot, I became aware of resurgent hints of Jew-hatred in his and others’ great works. It is there in Dickens, it is there in acclaimed writers of much more recent periods. A thought. A word. Jew or Jewess turning up in places where it had no relevance at all. It sent a shiver down my assimilated spine. I tried to dismiss this incipient racism as a relic of an ancient history that regarded Jews as a stateless, vagabond, metropolitan elite, comforting myself with the belief that, at least in my era, this was changing.

And yet, trying to conceal my Jewishness has probably become a subconscious mechanism. Why? Was it because I experienced virtually no antisemitism in my life among friends and colleagues of a different persuasion, who happily accepted me as one of them? By the time I began working for Jewish newspapers, I had clearly stated my ethnic and religious roots, but colleagues on the nationals I worked with were eager to discuss the question of Israel and were supportive when I explained her complex history. Not everyone, of course. Some were keen to debate her right to exist. And that was fine because it gave me a chance to defend it. There was nothing ambivalent about that. Nor about my love for a religion that I found both intellectually and spiritually illuminating.

And so perhaps there is something more. Something darker. The Holocaust in all its horror has painted Jews as Untermenschen; the so-called Christ-killers. As we know, antisemitism was there long before Israel and the issue of Palestinian rights. And it remains there, perhaps endemic in mankind and, I would argue, in my own private consciousness. I grew up with my parents’ devolved memories of the Nazis, but none of my own. I was someone who would have been deemed unworthy to live had Hitler come to power in Britain, but was living a secure life in my parents’ adopted country, the place of my birth.

Yet today we face a resurgence of antisemitism in its most disgusting form. Anti-Zionism has been replaced by Jew-hatred in plain sight. Those who call for the rights of Palestinians are no longer content to blame Israel but blame it all on the Jews, whether or not we all support Israel’s current policies. Yet at heart, many of us just want the same thing. Peace for both nations. The end of discrimination and racial hatred.

It’s as though all our Nobel prize-winners, all our Jewish achievements, moral, intellectual and universal, count for nothing. I still remember my parents’ negative exhortations to ‘stick together’, because you can’t trust the others. That at root, we will always be considered ‘the other’, not equal and never will be. It leads to a nagging question – what have we done to deserve this unequal treatment? Haven’t we done enough good in the world to earn the love – more than simply the grudging respect – of our fellow human beings?

But perhaps we have to look deep within ourselves to discover what is it we really want to say about our Judaism, about the essential spirituality of our faith. It’s about holding up our heads and being proud of what we are: Jews of all the colours, of all the persuasions, Orthodox and Progressive and none.

Art by Gus Condeixa


Gloria Tessler is a journalist, author, playwright and poet. She is the biographer of Lady Amelie Jakobovits, and her two plays, The Windmill and Unveiling Hagar, both on Jewish themes, have been performed on the London fringe. She is presently obituaries editor at the Jewish Chronicle and art correspondent at AJR Journal. 
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