Friday, March 23, 2012

On Europe, Judaism,...on Identity

This post has nothing at all to do with Spain, except for the fact that having lived here now for almost 6 years means that a substantial part of my sense of who I am comes from “being" in Spain over this time.

It would be more accurate to say that I feel somewhat “European” rather than Spanish or Catalan.

When events happen in France, Portugal, Italy or even Greece it seems to me that they are close. And because they seem close, they are relevant to my understanding of where I have been eating, sleeping, working and drawing breath for over half a decade.

Since, I first set foot in France in 1994 and then spent over 3 months travelling through Western Europe and a small part of Eastern Europe, the concept of Europe as an entity, to me is undeniable.

So, if I am at least partly “European” then what else am I?

I suppose I am Australian because the bulk of the first 30 years of my life were spent growing up there but I have barely related to that very distant place for a long, long time.

I have more of my heart in Japan because I strived and thrived through 3 years there, including the birth of our only child.

Identity can be simple, but for someone like me, it is a hugely complicated question.

Another important part of me is, to my eternal confusion and delight, Jewish. I think being [somehow] Jewish should be a very wide and open terminology.

Even a long time atheist like myself should be able to identify themself, as at least partly Jewish in the same way that many people think of themselves as being from any ethnic group, even if they are only, say 1/8 aborigine, Inuit, or native American "Indian."

I KNOW that a part of me is Jewish because my mother's ancestors were Jewish because they had a Jewish name.

I just don't know if they practised the religion at all because they, like some other Jews, seemingly denied it, wishing to assimilate into a mainstream Christian society. They got married in Christian churches and were buried in the Christian sections of the cemetry. If that means, in a strict sense that they were not Jews, then so be it.

Does that make me less of a Jew than Jerry Seinfeld or Golda Meir? Of course it does. But does it mean that I shouldn't feel a degree of "Jewishness?"

Here, I say no.

I understand Judaism on a number of important levels, but perhaps the most significant level is in the gut or the collective memory. I am suspicious of groupings and group-think but I get a strong sense of being somewhat Jewish when Jews are mocked or belittled.

Almost all of my closest male friends in the last 10 years or so have been Jewish. Is this a coincidence? I doubt it.

Strangely though, I did not know that any of them were Jewish when our friendships formed. I just felt an affinity with them — sharing many common interests and abilities and mutual temperaments, on the whole.

I know precious little about the Torah or Jewish religous rites and customs, so in this sense I am no Jew at all. But I have so many Jewish memes and Jewish traits that I would be disregarding clear signs of being fractionally Jewish.

What a “mixed race” mongrel am I!


CIngram said...

Interesting to read.

I am also sort of Jewish. My father's maternal grandmother had a Jewish name and came from Stepney, a Jewish area of London. It isn't certain that she was Jewish, and my grandmother never mentioned it, but it seems likely. If I understand correctly, ethnic Judaism is transmitted through the female line, which would make my father Jewish. HE was brought up in a completly non-religious household, went to the state CofE school etc, and practised no faith until he met my mother, who converted him to Catholicism. My mother is an Irish Catholic, definitely ot Jewish, so I'm not either, and it hadn't occured to any of us to wonder whether my father was (not even he himself had ever thought about it) until a few years ago.

Pardon the rambling on but the point is that like you I feel that I have some connection to Jews past and present that I didn't feel before. It makes me think a little differently, if only by paying closer attention to certain news stories and events.

Brett Hetherington said...

Many thanks for the comment, CIngram. It´s an interesting personal story you tell (no rambling at all!) and a relatively common one, when it comes to Jews who put a priority on "integrating" into mainstream society.

Even though the "Jewish-ness" that I have comes through my mother´s side of the family, I don´t think it´s quite right to only accept that only a maternal gene can or should be the main determining factor, but of course I have no say in these kinds of decisions, and neither does the average Jew either.

There is pretty strong evidence nowadays that certain personaility traits, certain abilities and certain predispositions come through the genetic lines of every species, including ours. If that is the case, I certainly believe that I owe at least some of my strong interest in language, writing, musical ability and general creative/intelllectual bent to my ancestors, which is somewhat of a stereotype, but as we know stereotypes grow from elements of truth .

I would speculate that the above may well apply to you also, as it clearly does to my latest good friend [a child-psychologist] who after we "clicked" together socially and became close, told me that his mother was also Jewish.

My father barely read a book in his life but my mother was, and still is a big reader, though both of them were poor and left school at age 15. My mother still makes vague and noncommital statements about her family background but she only ever preached to us as kids about two things: trade unions being a bad thing and the plight of the Jewish people.

The only time I ever remember seeing her get really upset and angry to the point of crying was years ago one night at the dinner table when my twin brother argued that the Palestinians should have "their land back."

She knows something about our past but just won´t let on. It´s a sad thing.