In the wake of the Queen’s funeral, Gloria Tessler reflects on the intense Jewishness of mourning.
Does it make me a royalist that like so many I was glued to the screen watching the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II as endless queues silently snaked past the coffin which stood draped in the colours of the four nations as she lay in state in Westminster Hall?
Or does it just emphasise my Britishness?
Nobody does royal symbolism as the Brits do. There was something so profoundly moving in the style and pageantry, the solemnity that echoed down the centuries of our history. Through closed eyes, I can still see the red and gold heraldic colours and the stunned and fearful faces of the painfully young naval cadets pulling the gun carriage bearing the Queen’s coffin to Westminster Hall.
The scene was riveting: Big Ben on the Elizabeth Tower chiming her 96 years, the fatalistic thud of the drums, the sibilance of military footfall, the raw emotions, the friendships forged in the long queues as Beethoven, Bach and Purcell echoed through the streets of London and Westminster Abbey. Everything about it had the structured beauty of ballet, of grand opera, of an art installation – and yet there was something more, something transcendent.
Yes, those eleven days did emphasise my Britishness. But I question what that means when, to be honest, that Britishness is only skin deep. One generation ago I was Hungarian; two generations back I was either Ukrainian or Lithuanian born into some shtetl with no link to understanding Britain and its rituals. Someone once said: while the Queen is on the throne, Jews are safe in Hendon. And for me, Britishness and Jewishness have always gone hand in hand. It has nothing to do with Zionism or religious expression. I went to a ruthless and narrow-minded Orthodox Jewish primary school whose headmaster was a terrifying Ian Paisleyite character, lashing out at us for the slightest misdemeanour. Yet, inconceivably, classical music was played in assembly, we sang English country songs with lyrics illegibly stencilled on blue, chemical-smelling paper, half the letters punched out, which became weirdly integral to our English and Jewish history. There were quaint military references, like the beautiful Irish song, The Minstrel Boy or this one, whose title I have forgotten:
Oh soldier, soldier, will you marry me, with your musket, fife and drum/
Oh no sweet maid I cannot marry you for I have no boots to put on.
What was this symbolism of home and country, of fighting with musket, fife and drum – of a minstrel boy gone to war with his father’s sword girded on, who would be found in the ranks of death? The lyrics and melodies were unforgettable, yet it all sounded so alien to the Jewish children singing them who knew nothing of war. I stuck out there like a sore thumb, more secular than any of them, whose parents suspected antisemitism everywhere except where the British monarch was on the throne, parents who eschewed Orthodox Judaism yet sent me to study Hebrew and Queen and Country. The safe option was learning where you came from so you could make sense of the past, present and future.
But last week as crowds gathered and fell silent in the presence of the Queen’s coffin, so tremulously borne from one catafalque to another by young men of strength and dedication, there came this fugitive sense of how being Jewish and British links you to the occasion and to the anguish of its emotion. The unseen body of the Queen, so fragile in death where she had seemed to carry earthly power in life, was totemic of all those hidden, beloved bodies, parents and families lost to us stirring up an intensely personal sorrow. The frailty of Elizabeth’s grandchildren standing vigil before crowds of strangers made me think – would we as Jews expose our children to such personal anguish, to be paraded like waxwork figures for the world to stare at?
The Queen was a country woman at heart. I still see her in her tweeds and rough brogues, her taut, elocuted accent, her twin loves, dogs and horses, the way she was something of a horse-whisperer, so deep was her understanding and sensitivity to these animals, a love which lit up her face when they won at the races.
I dreamed the other night that the royal family were Jewish! I looked for signs of Jewishness in their faces – then I woke up and laughed at the dream. And yet the naked grief on the face of King Charles made me think of all the Jewish faces I encountered at Jewish funerals. How terrible it was to see this exposure, those tremors on the faces of aristocrats taught to button their lips and carry on. Thankfully, after all this emotional self-revelation they will now have the luxury we Jews take for granted – seven days of private mourning. A shiva, no less.
In the end, it is less a question of feeling British, Jewish, royalist or republican; what we saw in these last eleven days was the drawing together of common humanity. People of all generations, all ethnicities, all religions and none managed to elude for a time the quarrels and fractures of political life, to mourn their Queen – or someone nearer whose loss they lamented. If nothing else it has brought the monarchy closer to home.