My grandfather was working in Shepherd’s Bush market when the Second World War broke out and was advised by the British Government, as were all East European Jews in the forces, to change the name to something a little..less..well obviously ‘yid’.
Note; this was my father.
The Jewish line is matrilineal and my mother was to the immense fury of my grandparents, not one of the Chosen people. This means I am only Jew ‘ish’ in the way that woman is a member of a golf club i.e. I can partake in the festivals and hang out at the reform synagogues but am not expected to really understand the implications of the religion.
I do feel a deep connection nonetheless. My genes jangle when I listen to a cantor’s singing, when I hear the ancient blessings, when I break bread on the holy days. I know almost all the words to Fiddler on the Roof.
(On the other hand I also know all the lyrics for Jesus Christ Superstar and will regularly sing it with my Jewish cousins at Passover. We draw the line at ‘Evita’.)
Many of my relatives disappeared into the fires of the holocaust and this resonated with my father’s generation and down the line to us. I am chilled to the bone by what happened only 65 years ago. I understand why Israel needed to emerge like a phoenix from the ashes of The Final Solution. I can still smell the fear and my subconscious is riddled with the cancerous images of concentration camps and mass graves, exterminations repeated endlessly through history and slamming into the present; Eastern Europe, Rwanda, Congo, Sudan. It is what the fundamentalist fringe of the Muslim world claim they want to do again to the Jews. Exterminate them and those connected to them. Would I and my family once again be faced with death for being Mischlings (semi Jews)? If you were faced with people screaming for your blood would you not, given the historical precedent, arm yourself to the teeth and fire first, over and over and over again?
On my mother’s side, my grandmother dabbled in all kinds of Christian based faiths including Christian Science. She ended up a Christina evangelist living out her days in a bizarre commune in Zimbabwe. She gave all her possessions away to the commune including any responsibility she might have had for her children, (others in the family may read that differently but that was the impression I had as a child.) She praised Jesus with every breath and I hope she found happiness doing it but I couldn’t be sure. The commune made people confess and repent in public a lot and even as a grubby child I felt that it was used as a form of bullying and control. Everyone judged everyone all the time. How tiring that must have been.
At my C of E boarding school the churches we were forced to attend each Sunday were huge, impersonal, cold and painfully, dreadfully dull. My class learnt to swear in sign language as we were not allowed to speak to each other through the service. My older sister found something deeply moving and personal in them though.. My older sister is now a vicar in the Church of England.
So what exactly do I believe in? The Force, of course, Narnia, Rock and Roll and the fact we really haven’t a bloody clue about what is going on or why we are here. I’ve been evangelised by Scientologists, The Jesus Army and worse. I’ve seen people running from witchcraft, healed by magik, comforted by atheism and made stronger by a profound belief in dark matter, quantum physics, Ganesha, Buddha, and the number 42. I need to believe in the power of constancy and kindness and yep..sorry..but I do very much have to believe that love is vitally important because otherwise someone will start building those gas chambers again. It is bound to be someone who purports to be religious too…so one thing I don’t believe in… I don’t believe in religion..