Gathered around the television last month, my family sat quietly watching the Jewish New Year service live-streamed on the screen in front of them. Not the usual way to mark the occasion; but a gallant effort on behalf of the local synagogue nonetheless, to ensure the important day didn’t go amiss. Particularly significant for my Grandparents, both in their nineties, who, in spite of war and all of life’s obstacles, have welcomed in every Jewish New Year with reflective prayer and the company of family.
I sat aloof from the scene, mulling over a gnawing sense of detachment — not unfamiliar, but poignant nonetheless. Invisible barricades erect between myself and the happenings on the screen, I couldn’t find my place within it all, despite having spent twenty three years trying. I felt a blockage deep within, a denial of this part of my identity. Yet here I was, surrounded by my flesh and blood, living, breathing proof of my heritage.
“I was raised to identify as Jewish, taking my Batmitzvah at thirteen as a coming-of-age rite of passage into Jewish adulthood.”
Religion and faith have never been something forced on me, or shoved down my throat. I grew up in a household where Friday night Shabbats were frequent, though more as a symbol of family and tradition than faith itself. For many years they were a highly-sought after event for my childhood friends — the promise of chicken soup with Matzah balls and lashings of soft, butter-laden Challah bread.
Although the matter of God and Judaism itself was scarcely discussed in our household, I was raised to identify as Jewish, taking my Batmitzvah at thirteen as a coming-of-age rite of passage into Jewish adulthood. Although my following of traditions has always been somewhat lax — scoffing rashers of bacon and cocktail sausages at friend’s houses with zero regret — it wasn’t until later that I started to question my religion.
Fortunate enough to have grown up in a protective childhood bubble, I enjoyed a number of years safe from the sting of society’s prejudices and oppressions. This blissful ignorance sustained until such attitudes began to seep into the school setting.
“Cruel stereotypes and racist comments were being vocalised with such ease and nonchalance, they could have been mistaken for nursery rhymes.”
My religion had always felt like a fun, quirky element of who I was, but by no means defined me. I had felt confident standing up in front of the assembly, aged eight; to light the Hanukkah candles alongside our multi-faith, religious-studies teacher, Mrs Sulanki, or speaking out confidently about my religion when asked. Although it was a predominantly Christian school, Mrs Sulanki worked hard to ensure that our knowledge and understanding of religion was vast and diverse, on one occasion taking us on a school trip to a Mosque, Convent, Gurdwara and Synagogue within the space of a single day.
Educated from a young age about the history of World War 2, I had always been aware of the monstrosities that people of the Jewish faith were victim to only two generations ago, however it always felt very much a part of history that society had learnt from, antisemitism surely being something I would never have to endure myself.
Around the age of ten, I realised that such assumptions were wrong. The word ‘Jew’ started to get tossed around the playground as a common slur, a dirty word which the boys would hurl at each other as an insult. Cruel stereotypes and racist comments were being vocalised with such ease and nonchalance, they could have been mistaken for nursery rhymes.
A young, socially-conscious girl, I didn’t know how to react, sitting silently as the words seeped in through my skin. Attempting to interfere a couple of times, it always felt a losing battle; a black sheep in my year group, I had no strength in numbers. I was alone in my meagre attempts to quash these sentiments of contempt, offensive not only to myself, but to my family and community. I knew it was wrong but I didn’t know how to stop it so, instead, I became passive.
“When I proclaimed my distaste for religion, during turbulent teenage years, my parents would listen with empathy.”
For years to come, I would internalise the antisemitism that festered amongst my school peers. I stopped speaking openly about my identity, instead denying it when asked, and starting to resent it. It no longer felt like a fragment of my whole self, but something that I would be defined by and alienated for.
As a teenage girl, such prospects were not an option, regardless of what I would have to tolerate as a result. As the years wound on, I stopped attending the Friday night dinners, instead spending the evenings in the Kingston McDonald’s with my mates. I didn’t set foot in the synagogue — not even for the high holy days — and would pointedly not say ‘Amen’ at the end of any prayers at family gatherings. I felt that, so as to avoid social estrangement, I would have to estrange that part of myself, and pretend that it didn’t exist.
“Today, I don’t associate with a particular faith. I veer towards the general term of “spiritualism””
My parents never insisted that I follow the Jewish faith. When I proclaimed my distaste for religion, during turbulent teenage years, they would listen with empathy. Their response would be only that the Jewish religion has morals and values that are a positive guide by which to lead our lives, that we should be proud of our heritage and relish the sense of care and community that the Synagogue facilitates.
Today, I don’t associate with a particular faith. Having taken a keen interest in Yogic principles, and the fundamentals of Buddhism and Hinduism that they are built upon, I veer towards the general term of “spiritualism”. I’m not sure what it is I believe in, but there are methods, rituals and approaches to life that these religions offer, that I hope will guide me in my mission to become a more compassionate person.
“Diversity in our society is something I am passionate about celebrating and encouraging, though sadly have never been able to celebrate in myself.”
I pick and choose, open to all ideas and seeing which ones settle. It is strange, therefore, that I still can’t get over my hump with my Jewish faith, the only exception being on my frequent trips to the lively city of Tel Aviv, Israel. There, I seem able to speak about it without stumbling over my words in attempt to suppress and self-filter. Perhaps it’s comfort in familiarity, or the knowledge that utterance of the word won’t raise eyebrows or trigger assumptions in the same way I’ve become so accustomed to in the UK.
Diversity in our society is something I am passionate about celebrating and encouraging, though sadly have never been able to celebrate in myself. I have come to realise that it is a crime to be so neglectful of my inherited faith, after my ancestors and grandparents fought so hard to survive because of it. I am in awe of their resilience and pride, and feel guilty for not being able to replicate those qualities within myself.
Nowadays, in a lot of ways, we are blessed to have such autonomy over who we are and how we define ourselves, there has been real social progression in that field; however, I strongly feel that Judaism remains a label that others put on us, regardless of whether we choose it or not. Evident in the school playground and newspaper headlines, antisemitism still simmers deep within the fabric of our society, leaking into the collective consciousness.
“I yearn for a society where all faiths are treated with the same respect; where children moving through the school system don’t have to learn to negate aspects of their identity in order to feel accepted, where we strip the word ‘Jew’ of all of its contaminated connotations.”
Antisemitic attacks continue to increase, with 2019 seeing a 7% rise since the previous year. The evidence is laid out plainly for all to see. Though these attacks are more overt manifestations of antisemitism, they merely signify that this stain on our society still remains despite 75 years of distance from the Holocaust.
Although predominantly propagated by far-right extremists, the issue is met by many others with total disregard — and to disregard is to condone. We only have to look at grime artist Wiley’s twitter posts earlier this year, and the accusations surrounding the Labour party, to see the issue clearly still persists in 2020. I feel nothing but fear when I see the headlines reporting on antisemitism from high profile figures and the leaders of our country. The idea that prejudice is being allowed to breed freely, across society’s entire hierarchy, makes me apprehensive for the future. I am riddled with a sense of foreboding that history might repeat itself.
Prejudice is rife across so many ethnicities, religions and identities that don’t conform to the British “norm”; passed down like genetics, from parents to children, these stereotypes and attitudes are perpetuated.
I yearn for a society where all faiths are treated with the same respect; where children moving through the school system don’t have to learn to negate aspects of their identity in order to feel accepted, where we strip the word ‘Jew’ of all of its contaminated connotations, and finally bury the attitudes that should have died with the war in 1945. Meanwhile, I am healing the wounds that I’ve gouged out in my identity, learning that my association with the Jewish faith should be made completely on my own terms.
Gaby Conn (she/her) is a 23-year-old Londoner, working as a freelance writer and artist. She specialises in opinion pieces, personal essays and social commentary. @gaby_conn