By Emily Byfield-Riches
I grew up with the knowledge that my Dad’s side of the family were Ashkenazi Jews. How Jewish, I didn’t know definitively, and how Jewish this made me, I was never sure. My mother was German, and she was baptised as a child. My Dad’s side of the family were not religious Jews. Their Jewishness was secular; they didn’t celebrate Passover or Chanukah. My cousins all had bar mitzvahs, but they ate pork and cheeseburgers. My sister and I never had our own bat mitzvahs. And yet, my Grandmother was acutely proud of her Jewish heritage, and often spoke in Yiddish. For her, Jewishness was intrinsic to who she was; it was her Jewishness that made her emotional, made her cry at every little thing, her Jewishness that motivated her love of food, her Jewishness that filled her with pride. If the cashier at her local Cooperative gave her the wrong change, they were a Meshuggener, a fool, and when I sang for her, I made her Kvell, or burst with pride (when I could hit the right notes, that is).
In contrast, my Dad spoke little about his Jewishness. Throughout my childhood he seemed to take an ambivalent approach, not so much avoiding the question of his Jewishness, nor concealing it, but rather adopting a neutral stance. I’ve never really confronted him about his neutrality on the matter, until in a recent phone call.
He tried to explain to me that his lack of vocality regarding his Jewish heritage was a result of various factors throughout his life, the most prominent being his own experiences growing up. He grew up in London, and it has long been my understanding that for him, his Jewishness made him a target during his years at school and thereafter. As a result of such anti-semitism, he explained, he even came to fear what being Jewish meant for him and our family.
The persecution of Jews is an integral part of Jewish history, and Jews have long been refugees as a result of such violence. Growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust, my Dad admitted that, for years, he harboured the quiet fear that a similar threat may once again rise to endanger his family and fellow Jews. I’d never really considered how these experiences might have shaped his relationship with his Jewishness, and now I can see just how much they have. My Dad’s experiences growing up in London influenced him to such an extent that he largely withdrew from that part of his identity for many years. His experiences with anti-semitism meant he learned to see his racial background as divisive, something that would serve to separate rather than unify. This fear of ethnic categorisation, he explained, was his principal reason for not wanting to transport his Jewishness into his children. He raised us with a relatively neutral stance on the matter so that we could make our own decisions about our identities. Whether or not we felt moved to engage with our Jewishness was our choice.
In my sister’s case, she approached her Jewishness with a certain sense of impartiality. It was something that she was, a titbit, but never something that would contribute to or shape her identity. And, I suppose I was largely the same throughout childhood, though perhaps I was slightly more vocal about my Jewish heritage. Like my Grandmother, I felt proud of my Jewishness, even if I didn’t necessarily understand what it entailed or meant. Yet, being more vocal also had its drawbacks: though not nearly on the same level as my Dad, I also faced anti-semitism in my school years. Classmates would often question and tease me over the fact I didn’t have what they considered to be a stereotypically “big” Jewish nose, suggesting that my lack of this “defining” feature meant I was a fake Jew. They would ask why I didn’t wear a Yarmulke/Kippah, or, in their words, a “funny Jewish hat”. Upon learning that my mother was a German national and my father was Jewish, I was often asked if my parents met in Auschwitz and teased that I was born in a gas chamber. It was even joked that I was the first “Nazi Jew”. And yet, strangely, what I struggled with more was the fact that I, myself, was never sure how to answer these questions or comments. Their questions turned into my questions. Did I not look Jewish? What did it mean to look Jewish? What did my heritage mean? Was I a real Jew? Or, a fake one?
I remember hearing parts of the Torah read at each of my cousin’s bar mitzvahs, enjoying the sound of Hebrew, and feeling as if I was a part of something wonderful. What that thing was, or where my place was in that something, however, was more difficult to locate. As I grew older, that wonderful something began to take shape around me. I came to recognise a curiosity inside me and, rather than sit with it, I acted on it. I began reading up on Jewish history, I started cooking (and fell in love with) Jewish food. I have never been particularly religious, but I researched Jewish holidays. I read writings by Jewish people, I watched films and documentaries. While my grandmother was still alive and able, I asked her all I could, and she told me stories of her own childhood and shared her own knowledge of Jewish culture. Knowing more about the culture and the history that I belonged to helped to ground me. She taught me to view my Jewishness as a part of a larger whole, as belonging to a broader community. A family, even.
Ultimately, I had hoped that in writing this article I would come to some sort of consolidated understanding or definition of my own Jewishness. When I was first asked to write an article on my experience as a Jew, I didn’t know exactly what I would or could write on. In a way, my reaction to writing this article seemed to reflect my own relationship with Jewishness. I was confused. I didn’t know where I should start or what I should write about, just as I didn’t know where my Jewishness began, and what that part of me meant. For some reason, I felt that if I just started writing, I might, by the end of the article, finally come to a conclusion about the extent or validity or authenticity of my Jewishness.
And yet, truthfully, I’m still not quite sure what my Jewishness means. The answer remains elusive. Of course, learning to follow my curiosity has certainly been important in developing my understanding of what it means to be Jewish, and I continue to learn more about this part of my heritage every day. Talking with my family more openly about our Jewish heritage has helped me to understand their own, individual notions of Jewishness. I have found roots within a community. I have discovered new food and cultural practices. I have bonded with my Jewish friends. But despite this, I still feel an element of confusion regarding my Jewish heritage. I am, decidedly, still in the process of discovering how it plays into my life. And, honestly? I am completely fine with that. I am still uncovering this part of myself, and undoubtedly will continue to do so for many years to come. Perhaps one day, I will have the answers that I am looking for. But for now, I am still trying to trace the Jewishness in me.