Updated: Jun 7, 2019
If there was one question that I went to Israel to answer, it was this. It is a question which has lurked at the back of my mind for several years and one which pushes me to consider and try to understand my identity, or rather, dual identities.
Judaism is an odd one. It is a rare religion in that many of its participants view being Jewish also as an ethnicity; you will often hear reference to ‘the Jewish people’ as well as ‘the Jewish religion’. This is somewhat complicated, as most Jews in the UK are Caucasian, so this does not quite fit into normal associations of ethnicity, race or skin colour.
A great many of us in the UK are ‘British-something else’, whether that’s a dual nationality or a less definable dual identity. Whilst almost all of us are incredibly well-assimilated into British culture and hold British values as second-nature, there is sometimes the lingering question of how this ties into the other part of us.
Touching down in Tel Aviv as part of a Birthright trip with Israel Experience (a free 10-day tour of Israel open to 18-26-year-old Jews around the world), it was the first time in my life that I wasn’t part of a tiny minority. In the UK, we are 0.43% of the population. To give some context, Muslims make up 4.41%, Hindus 1.32% and Sikhs 0.68%. There is only a 0.02% difference between the number of Jews and the number of Buddhists. This means, if you live outside of certain areas of North London and perhaps bits of Manchester or Glasgow, you are unlikely to have ever met a Jew.
The beach in Tel Aviv
This came as a bit of a surprise to me, when I got to University. Having been raised in that specific area of North London, it hadn’t occurred to me that the rest of the UK wouldn’t have had a clue what I was on about when I described some of the girls in my halls as ‘becky’ [see glossary].
Generally though, this never bothered me too much. I am pretty much as integrated as you can get, I felt and still feel deeply British; cream teas, Pimms, rowing teams and all. But it troubles me when someone learns of my heritage and says, “well you don’t look Jewish”, like I should be conforming to the stereotype of what a Jew should look like. A few have gone beyond questioning why I choose not to eat pork and shellfish, to overtly mocking my decision as illogical. I have also been on the receiving end of anti-Semitism on more than one occasion, some incidents were harmless and others had quite the opposite intent. Sometimes, when you are forced into the position of being an outsider, ‘the other’, you find yourself starting to become it.
This becomes even more confusing when you bring Israel into the mix. Opinion in the UK is not exactly positive on this topic, sometimes fairly so and sometimes pretty unfairly; the line between anti-Israel and anti-Semitism is subjective and wafer-thin. As a British Jew, you therefore often find yourself standing up in defence of an issue you may or may not always wholeheartedly personally believe in, because you find yourself again put in the position of ‘the other’. It is assumed you hold certain views because on this topic you are seen as being more of a Jewish Brit.
The Western Wall (Kotel)
This is why being in the Holy Land led me to consciously think about this question, because here, I was just Jewish, there wasn’t really a conflict of identity. My nationality didn’t matter so much because the unifier was common to the majority of the population. Whilst on the tour, I was in a group of 40 others who were at polar ends of the scale of religious practice, but yet, it felt like everyone was ‘like me’. I realised that I’d never really felt that way as an adult before.
Over the course of the Birthright Israel Experience trip, I started asking people’s views on this question, both group participants and those I met along the way. Unsurprisingly, I got as many different views as people I asked. These two stood out the most.
“Yom Kippur will always be with you, wherever you are in the world.”
I couldn’t disagree with this. Whenever I go abroad, I will always have a look around the synagogue if there is one. Two years ago, I was in Uzbekistan over the High Holidays, and yes, I somehow managed to find a synagogue in a country which has such a small Jewish community that they no longer even show up as a percentage on the national census. Despite considering myself only culturally Jewish, my Judaism still comes with me around the world.
Synagogue in Bukhara, Uzbekistan
“Why must you choose?”
You have to irritatingly love it when someone answers a question with another question. Sometimes, I am more British and sometimes I am more Jewish – and that’s OK. At 25, your identity cannot be fully formed yet as there is so much of life you have yet to experience, the good and bad. Identity can be a fluid question that will change shape just as often as you will.
When I’m watching Wimbledon, eating cheesy chips or having a hot toddy in a pub after a walk in the middle of winter, I’m as British as they come. When I munch on matzah, someone drops shlap into conversation or I sit down to dinner with my family on a Friday night then I’m Jewish.
For some, you will never be British enough and for others you will never be Jewish enough. Dual identities, though, can give you the best of both, like when I have a Yorkshire pudding with Friday night dinner, get two extra hash browns with my English breakfast in place of the bacon, or put a Star of David on top of the Christmas tree.
The key, perhaps, is continuing to ask questions and to search for the answers.
Christmakah - Christmas and Chunukah. Some years, they fall on the same day
Please note the phrase ‘two Jews, three opinions’. This article consists of personal views that I am sure many other British Jews will strongly disagree with. The aim here is to encourage a diversity of opinions to demonstrate that our community has just as many differing ideas as everyone else. It might sound like an obvious point, but it is often overlooked.
The above phrase will undoubtedly also apply to the definitions in the glossary.
You can find out more about Birthright with Israel Experience’s summer and winter trips here.
Glossary (Yiddish/Hebrew in italics)
Beck: Think the type of girl that wore Abercrombie/Hollister, Uggs and lots of orange-tinted make-up. You know the ones I mean. Spelling disputed - unsure if teenage slang popular only in North London, or actually Yiddish, even my mother could not confirm this.
Chanukah: Jewish festival of lights, lasting eight days. Often overlaps with Christmas. Involves presents and eating lots of fried food. No agreed spelling, all of the following are considered acceptable, in order of popularity: Hanukkah/Chanukah/Hanukah/Hannukah/Chanuka/Chanukkah/Hanuka/Channukah/Chanukka/Hanu-kka/Hannuka/Hannukkah/Channuka... the list goes on.
Friday night dinner: A dinner with family to welcome in the Sabbath (Shabbat). Involves challah (similar to brioche), lighting two candles, chicken soup, a roast chicken and red wine.
High Holidays: Series of holy festivals, including Yom Kippur, that occur in quick succession in Autumn.
Matzah: Unleavened bread eaten during the Passover festival. Basically, a super yummy cracker that gives you an excuse to eat butter.
Pork and Shellfish: The most well-known elements of Kosher food laws, as traditionally, Jews do not eat these. There are plenty of other food related rules, collectively called Kashrut.
Shlap: Yiddish, meaning to carry something heavy or to make a long journey. Essentially an action that requires physical effort, that you probably don’t want to do. Also spelt shelp.
Star of David: The symbol of Judaism – a 6-pointed star.
Synagogue: Jewish house of prayer. Colloquially know as ‘shul’ in the UK.
Yom Kippur: The holiest day of the Jewish year. The fasting festival - no eating or drinking for 25 hours. Tough, mate.
Zionism: A movement for (originally) the re-establishment and (now) the development and protection of a Jewish state in what is now Israel.
NB: I’ve been to Israel once before, age 15, also on an organised tour. I was a bit too young to really appreciate it at the time, it turns out!