Thursday 2 February 2017

Two Jews, Three Opinions – by Gillian Polack

This post is addresses difficult current issues. It shows one of the ways in which the history we love is bound to the present we live in. It may not be comfortable for all readers.

Sometimes, small events come together in surprising ways. My academic side has been looking at what makes us draw history in fiction in the way we do, as writers. One of the side topics is where writers get those interpretations from. When we write about outsiders and minorities and people who are just a bit different to us, we draw upon our own background and also upon how we describe these others.

While I was thinking about that, my friend, Rivqa and some of her friends began a writing project. In her words “Problem Daughters will amplify the voices of women who are sometimes excluded from mainstream feminism. It will be an anthology of beautiful, thoughtful, unconventional speculative fiction and poetry around the theme of intersectional feminism, focusing on the lives and experiences of marginalized women, such as those who are of color, QUILTBAG, disabled, sex workers, and all intersections of these. Edited by Nicolette Barischoff, Rivqa Rafael and Djibril al-Ayad, the anthology will be published by Publishing and is currently being crowdfunded. “

It struck me that this project is an opportunity for us, as readers of history and historical fiction, to ask our own questions. In historical fiction, it’s important to get beneath simple descriptions and to add just a bit more depth to how we see those historical figures we love. One of the reasons fiction is so powerful is because it, more than formal academic history, can make people come alive in all their complexity. Done well, it’s a wonderful thing. Doing it well is hard.

The first time this Australian government menorah was lit was in Parliament House, Canberra in 2016. It was only the second time politicians had formally come together to celebrate the festival... ever. Yet Australia has had a Jewish population since the arrival of the First Fleet.

In my most recent novel, I looked at Australian Jewish women’s history, and how it’s different to the standard ways Jews are seen and interpreted historically. Rivqa and I both come from that background. We decided to have a long chat and to find out what we share and what we don’t share and why some language works to describe us and why some doesn’t.

This kind of discussion gives me a solid standard for reading fiction.  If the characters aren’t as complex and interesting as we are, then they don’t feel real to me. This is important, and so I’m sharing the whole conversation. Just to make it clear, Rivqa led it.

I hope you enjoy it!

Rivqa: Hi Gillian, it's so great to talk to you as always! I hope summer and novel writing are treating you well.

You and I are both Jewish people living in Australia, but that doesn't mean our cultures are the same; I'm still tickled by how you signed my copy of your most recent novel, The Wizardry of Jewish Women -- ‘please don't throw this book against the wall’ for this exact reason.

But I'm getting sidetracked, because I first wanted to ask you about the use of the term ‘Jew’, as compared with ‘Jewish people’, which I tend to reach for first. I'm particularly wary of non-Jewish people using ‘Jew’; I've had it thrown at me as an insult enough times to make me jumpy when I hear it, even though it's usually said with complete cluelessness to the sensitivity. What do you think?

Gillian: My personal preference is simply ‘Jewish’ for that keeps me out of the firing line that some people save for anything that makes them think of Israel or global conspiracies and for some reason 'Jewish people' is one such description. We both are and we aren't a people, so 'Jewish' is easier from that direction, as well.

I used to react to 'of the Jewish persuasion' the way you react to 'Jew'. I've seen it so often in so many contexts and it's always been faintly pejorative. In recent years, however, 'Jew' has overtaken it in terms of negatives. It's much harder to address, too. If someone says 'you're of the Jewish persuasion', I can ask them 'which persuasion is yours?' or 'does this mean you're of the Catholic persuasion?" Because those constructs are so very dated, they sound a bit daft and can be used to push people to instantly reconsider their language.  

The symbolic distance between this flag at Parliament House and those candles
is telling.

'Jew' is much harder to address. I have to slow myself down when I hear 'Jew' and try not to react, because it can be being used as an insult or a faint pejorative, but it can also be a perfectly standard description.

The one I will argue with always (as well as from things like 'dirty Jew', obviously) is ‘people of the Jewish faith’. It suggests that Judaism is constructed in the same way that Christianity and Islam are. Judaism is quite different. Faith is an element of religious Judaism, but we do not have a faith-based religion in that way. Unlike Christianity and Islam (the two most well-known faith-based religions) a simple statement of faith will not convert someone to Judaism. This is the technical definition of the term, and is a very handy standard, so I stick to it. The people who want to argue with it, are actually arguing that Judaism is something quite different to its reality and those differences usually include elements that bigots ascribe to us but that we don't actually have. Once a friend laughed at me for my pedantry in saying this, which showed me some surprising limitations at her end. Or maybe it just demonstrated that I have problems with people who only accept Judaism if it complies with their biases concerning it.

The bottom line with all these terms is that we're seldom allowed self-definition. Most other people assume they can tell us who we are and how we act and think and believe. This is why the word 'Jew' is becoming so very uncomfortable: it is not guaranteed to allow us our understanding of ourselves. This has happened before. It's often well-intended, which rubs salt into the wound. It relates to some cultures and religions and races being verbally related to a place slightly apart. I'd rather be joined with Indigenous Australians through all the cool things we share than through both of us having to deal with this demeaning form of light bigotry.

Rivqa: I feel that denial of self-definition so strongly. Without the relevant education, the average white Australian (in my experience) seems to think that Judaism is more or less analogous to Christianity, minus Jesus (minus Christmas has genuinely not occurred to many I’ve spoken to). And although I’m largely not-practising now, I find I need to over-emphasise what I do practise for people to register me as Jewish at all. It’s a weird, liminal space to occupy.

More on the world stage, the obsession with whether Ashkenazim are white is equally tiresome; particularly when it involves leftists and Nazis arguing over our heads about it. For many reasons that I won’t go into (at least just yet), I identify as white. More or less. But it’d be nice to be able to make that decision for myself, even as I consider the social structures that inform that identity. And those assumptions about political alignment based on religion! Please stop. It’s exhausting. I don’t need to justify my existence to white Australians, especially those who are suspiciously quiet on refugees.

And yes, definitely; I like ‘Jewish people’, not ‘the Jewish people’, which implies a monoculture when we are not one. The two of us had very different Jewish Australian experiences -- again, and I still chuckle when I think about that book inscription I mentioned earlier! Because you signed it at your wonderful Rosh Hashana dinner, where so many of your traditions were just different enough from mine to make me wonder if I’d stepped into an alternate dimension. So, if we can get a bit reductionist, let’s talk about that for a bit.

The dinner Rivqa talked about.

I grew up in the Chabad community in Melbourne. Chabad is an interesting Hassidic sect, especially for women; there’s much less expectation to be demure, my high school in particular prized secular education, and my constant arguing with rabbis at my Modern Orthodox yeshiva (post-high school) horrified some of my peers (but not the rabbis; that’s the Talmudic way, after all). There were no restrictions on my reading.

Yet as far as Jewish law and custom went, I was taught one way to do things. I won’t go into a detailed history of the Chabad movement, but many customs, rooted as they are in Jewish mysticism, are at odds with other European Jewish practices. As much as I now believe in pluralities of Judaism and Jewishness, it’s hard to shake that ingrained feeling that others are (and, indeed, I am) ‘doing it wrong’ … even though that ‘right way’ is at odds with my personal beliefs. Jacob wrestling with the angel; tension; internal struggle… it might seem like a negative way to describe how I relate to my culture, but for the most part, for me, it’s positive. Complicated, but positive.

Gillian: I identified as fully white and solidly privileged, until I discovered that Jews historically in Australia are far more frequently ambivalently white: near white, honorary white, or, as I like to call it, off-white.

I started to feel the disadvantages of this before I started comparing notes with people who don't have full white privilege. It was a shock to discover how much life experience we had in common. How many setbacks, how many knockbacks, how much discounting, how many people who said 'you people' and left us off lists.

I've developed ways of identifying some of these shared experiences, to help me deal with this change in my self-perception. Let me give you an example. When we talk about walking into a room of strangers, you can tell those whose differences make them unsafe. There's a shared note of masked caution in the body language and in the words. It’s not always safe to walk into a room full of strangers, so we manifest caution.

There has never been any guarantee that strangers won't hate me for being Jewish. I might be argued with by the tolerant, or walked out on by the ‘I can't deal’ or told various things I really don't want to hear by others, but the moment strangers know I'm Jewish I'm almost guaranteed a reaction. There's always a strong likelihood of a room not being friendly.  Knowing that I share this with others is a bridge we build. I'd rather the bridge were built on liking roses or enjoying walking in the rain, but how we enter a room is important and that particular bridge has helped me talk openly with many people with similar experiences. It also helps me not open myself to people who have no idea, until I'm sure they're safe.

‘Don't tell them you're Jewish’ is the usual recommendation. I've always thought, though, that if those who pass all hide, then racism festers. Not everyone can hide. If I don't address problems, some of my friends, who have to deal with racism based on skin colour, or bigotry based on being in a wheelchair, will have far harder everyday lives.

Every time someone walks out of a conversation or looks at me in a certain way, I wish I were less combative. Prejudice isn't about me, though, or the person doing the hating: it's about the society we live in. We all contribute to society and we all make choices as to what our contributions are. I choose to be open about my background. I choose to not 'pass.' Why?

Because Australian Jews mostly pass as white, some of the negatives don't happen at all and others don't happen as often as they do to those who don't pass. And because we (my family, the Jews I grew up with) have a culture of public silence about hate, it took me a very long time to identify that what I was seeing ranged from intolerance to hate. Hate, to me, was the Shoah. Anything else was just a natural part of society. For some reason, by being exposed to Shoah since I was so very young (I saw photos of the liberation from the camps and those giant piles of bodies when I was six) I'd normalised it.

Except it wasn't. It's never been a natural part of society. It should never be normalised.

When we accept hate, we're condoning hate crimes.

This mikvah (in Montpellier) was lost for centuries. Persecution has a vast cultural cost, historically.

These aspects of prejudice, and the idea that we all have choices and we should make them thoughtfully, are how I was taught to interpret tikkun olam (a part of Jewish philosophy that boils down to making the world a better place). This brings me to how I was taught such things.

I come from an Australian Orthodox family. Not Chabad. Quite, quite different from Chabad. My mother taught us most things, in the home. We had a Hebrew teacher (Israeli, which is why my accent is always unexpected for someone who has Hebrew-for-praying). We kept strictly kosher, for Mum, but Dad worked on Saturday mornings.

We were a blended family. Mum's father was from Bialystock and Mum's mother was born when the family was fleeing the Kishinev pogroms. Dad's culture was so much from his mother that I only know a little of his father's culture. It was terribly, terribly Anglo-Australian. I can’t imagine being unable to make scones. Chops or sausages and three veg and a salad and maybe a pudding was our weeknight food, with a roast on Friday.  All the sets of dishes. All the trials of Pesach in the days when orders had to be made way in advance to get the kosher food over to Australia in time. And we went to state schools, because, on Dad's side, we were quite left wing. We went to shul, but we also learned musical instruments. I was in Girl Guides for years, supported by Dad for he was in Scouts for even more years.

The older members of two sides of the family didn't get on that well much of the time because they were so very, very different, so for me being Jewish is about sitting next to people who won't talk to each other and making them comfortable. It's about afternoon tea and fine china and silver teapots and committee meetings and musical afternoons. We could read Hebrew and music, for both were important. And tikkun olam came from both sides - some things are universally Jewish.

We were expected to be strong women as well, but in quite a different way. Mum taught us our Judaism. Both parents educated us on other ways. All the books! All the time! It was a wonderful thing as a child to have no books that were off limits. We weren't expected to be loud, however.

I was taught Jewish law in a very traditional way. We were taught to ask questions, but that if we wanted to answer back we had to be able to argue and give proof. My sisters and I only studied the first six days of Bereshit (the opening sequence of the Torah). It took us six months, because we studied the commentary as well, as we learned how to work out which comments were backed up by the text and which weren't.

This led me so naturally into studying history that it was a seamless transition. I knew that my life was going to include history and analysis of some kind when I was still in primary school. I dream of palaeontology and museum curating and everything in between until I reached university, when I discovered historiography.

Historiography is like Torah study - you can't turn your brain off, ever. The moment I discovered this, I was hooked. I tried to be fair to rabbis and my background and I listened to a vast range of rabbis, from all branches of Judaism I could find. So many arguments they made were emotive or ill-conceived. So many of the approaches they suggested lacked the cultural context to demonstrate validity. I stopped studying Torah and started arguing with all the texts, all the time. It was wonderful. It still is.

I totally missed out on Jewish mysticism until much later. It's just not part of my immediate family background. My family cares more about the scientific than the numinous. This explains the basic conflict within my novel, doesn't it? I didn't explore it much, but I wanted the fact that both approaches are very Jewish to be acknowledged. That we have mysticism and we have scientific method, both.

Challenging stereotypes (like this Aussie woman) changes how we see history. Photo: Y. Green.

Rivqa: Off-white is just perfect. We (as Ashkenazim, it bears repeating) might be able to hide, sort of, most of the time, but as you say, it’s not in anyone’s best interest, long-term, for us to do so (barring instances where safety is a concern, of course). Time and again we’ve seen antisemitic techniques deployed by Islamophobes and vice versa, just to name one example, and we need to break that cycle. An uncomfortable part of passing privilege is being all the more likely to hear some of the more casual racism, the ‘jokes’ from people who think they’re not racist because it’s ‘just a joke’ and they’d never abuse a person of colour to their face. Calling out that sort of thing is never easy, but hopefully it makes some small difference sometimes. Often, I think of myself as an interface, a conduit -- it’s that liminal experience again, but it’s basically constant, and these small acts of social justice are an important part of that.

I love hearing about your upbringing, and how it informed your career choices as well as your world view. For me, studying Jewish law might not have directly influenced my study of science, but understanding the internal logic of a system certainly did. Arguing with text is just such a Jewish thing to do. Yelling at God! I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in yelling at God; it’s about protesting injustice and advocating for kindness.

Agricultural Jewish law (for example, shmita, the concept of letting the land lie fallow once every seven years) and laws around charity (pe’a, leaving a portion of a harvest for the poor) had such a strong influence on my world view. Equally, the image of the Jewish mystic slipping away to the forest to meditate had a profound impact. The idea of everyone and everything being connected is not unique to our people, but I think it’s important to mark that journey, honour it, and continue to work for those core values that, for me, have not actually changed as much as one might think.

More about Rivqa:
Rivqa Rafael is a queer Jewish writer and editor based in Sydney. She started writing speculative fiction well before earning degrees in science and writing, although they have probably helped. Her previous gig as subeditor and reviews editor for Cosmos magazine likewise fueled her imagination. Her short stories have appeared in Hear Me Roar (Ticonderoga Publications), The Never Never Land (CSFG Publishing), and Defying Doomsday (Twelfth Planet Press). In 2016, she won the Ditmar Award for Best New Talent. When she’s not working, she’s most likely child-wrangling, playing video games, or practising her Brazilian Jiujitsu moves. She can be found at and on Twitter as @enoughsnark.

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