In the wake of yet another royal race row, Gloria Tessler reflects on where Jews come from.
Where do you come from? No, where do you really come from? It’s possible that European Jews may have rarely been asked this question. Although it was put to me several times at school by kids who were convinced I had an accent. They were not persuaded by my parents’ East European vernacular having rubbed off onto me. No where do you really come from? – they persisted. In the end, they decided my “accent” was Scottish, which made me laugh because at the time I had never been to Scotland.
As for looks, I was pale with light brown, slightly wavy hair. My daughter, on the other hand, is frequently asked this question because she has long, dark curly hair, inherited from her father. A “Jewfro” she calls it. And she is only asked by people of colour, who are interested in seeing if they may share a common heritage, and they would never, never, touch her hair, as the unfortunate lady-in-waiting to the Queen Lady Susan Hussey was reputed to have done, as though its special texture might reveal some secret.
Did I mind the questions? Did my daughter mind? Actually no. So how do we relate to last week’s row between an ageing, out-of-touch aristocrat and a black charity leader? Does it have anything at all to do with Jews, or do we perhaps, in a more subtle way, also have context here?
Where do you really come from? Jews, whether European, Sephardi or Israeli, are all from somewhere else. Pressing the question to charity leader Ngozi Fulani was bound to raise deep-seated anxiety about how her Britishness was perceived. Usually, except in very special circumstances, such as being invited to royal garden parties or accepting an OBE at Buckingham Palace, we do not encounter aristocrats accustomed to their own narrow species, isolated from people of mixed heritage and the issues of race that Harry and Meghan have been keen to point out from their rarefied zone across the pond. But if we did, would it be the same for us?
As Jews, we are eternally looking over our shoulders for signs of antisemitism. Derided for our presumed wealth and power, condemned for our alignment with Israel, even though we are not all bankers, nor are we equally supportive of every policy of the Israeli government. David Baddiel has revealed in his TV broadcast that he has little affinity with Israel but is concerned about antisemitism in society. The left-wing Miriam Margolyes feels Israel is part of her Jewish consciousness, which made her more appalled at the Jewish State’s policies towards the Palestinians, and which puts her in direct conflict with Baddiel, who does not.
Where do you really come from? This begs a much deeper question. Where we come from has many connotations. We are Charedi Jews awaiting an atavistic and messianic vision which will return the purity of the Holy Land to us in which, presumably, the lion, the lamb and all the Arab world will lie down together in peace. We are eternally from there– from an Israel not of flesh, blood and earth but of some mythic spiritual essence.
We are Zionist Jews, whose belief in the Jewish homeland dates from the Diaspora, and is eternally driven by the Holocaust: after the tsunami of Jewish suffering, Zionist Jews insist Israel is their only true ancestral home.
We are Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Mizrachi, African, Chinese, Orthodox, Modern Orthodox and Progressive Jews – Jews from the four corners of the earth – for whom our real home is prayer, observance, community and charity. And we are secular Jews, embracing the culture, nourished by that culture, who don’t bother much with God or synagogue but for whom the sanctity of Shabbat and the festivals yield the comforts of Friday night candles and challah, doughnuts, hamantaschen and latkes, each according to their season.
Ngozi Fulani was made to feel like a total outsider by Lady Hussey’s intense questioning, and it has hurt and traumatised her to the core. Sadly, the aristocrat clearly had no conception of what she was doing and was probably wrongly placed to meet dignitaries of colour, people so far removed from her own courtly comfort zone.
Where do you really come from? Like Ngozi we are often made to feel like cosmopolitan drifters in a society not truly our own, and the sense has been reinforced in the past by some of our greatest writers – from TS Eliot, who saw us as a multi-cultural underdog – “The Jew is underneath the lot” – from Dickens’ Fagin, a pariah in an underworld of thieving and poverty, and from so many other literary sources.
We are, perhaps, a people of nowhere and everywhere, who have contributed to all the societies in which we found a place – as has Ngozi – and we should celebrate that, as should she.
Where do we really come from? Let’s just say we are a people of Now.