Thursday, 16 February 2017

Choosing an identity

At the age of 12, I started Sunday Hebrew classes at the “local” synagogue in Streatham, a south London suburb.  
I was not enthusiastic because it was a (too) long bus journey from West Norwood where we lived.
Yes, there were also Jews living in West Norwood: us.

A few years later at my grammar school in Brixton, another south London district, I studied Jewish history for an A-level in Religious Knowledge. I enjoyed that.
It was mainly stories of adventure and sex during the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties.

My Sunday sojourn at Streatham shul included a very different kind of Jewish history class. It was one long, seemingly unending, story of persecution in Europe.
Two examples from Italy have always stuck in my memory.
In medieval Rome the weakest member of the Jewish community would be thrust naked into a nail-spiked barrel and rolled down the hill to his death.
During carnival at the time of the Counter Reformation, Jews in Rome, especially fattened for the occasion, were pelted with mud by the crowds and made to run naked through the streets in the icy cold and rain.

Besides that, there were the Holocaust stories. The really gruesome ones. I can only remember parts of these stories. I try not to remember the rest.

There were reasons for this intensive confrontation with a horrific past.
The Holocaust was not yet history. It was a recent occurrence and the pain and horror was still deeply felt. 
These stories were warnings of what could happen again and why we Jews should stick together, stay in the community. Jew-hatred was an indelible part of the outside society.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries most Jews in Eastern Europe lived in small market towns called shtetls. The word “shtetl” is Yiddish, and it means “little town.”
The Jewish people I knew, like most of the diaspora at that time, had the same attitude to persecution as these extinct shtetl Jews of Eastern Europe. They saw themselves as passive victims who could not do anything about the persecution and relied on the compassion of others for protection.

There was an alternative to the shtetl Jew. The new Jew of the political Zionists. They rejected the passive victim role and the ghetto mentality. They maintained that Jews should become masters of their own destiny.

As a teenager I had to choose which identity I wanted. The shtetl Jew or the political Zionist. I chose for the political Zionist.
I was never any good at that passive victim stuff.