So this is the cumulative result of a lot of random conversations and observing a few things over the years, and was finally spurred into a full poem after I had a moment of hesitating because I was embarrassed to admit I was Jewish. Since when is this a thing?! But it seems that at some point the only things that anyone has learned about Judaism or Jewish culture can be summed up by South Park, Borat, and documentaries about the Nazi party. None of which are exactly the best sources on which to base your assumptions. So, the main points to be learned from all this are:
- Stereotyping, type casting and making assumptions about someone’s life, attitudes and background based entirely on an accident of their birth is called discrimination. If they’re Jewish, it’s called being anti-Semitic. No if’s, but’s or maybe’s.
- The phrases ‘but that’s all irrelevant now, it was decades ago’, and ‘some of my best friends are…’ do not get you out of a hole when you’re talking about Jews any more than they do when you’re talking about black people, and they don’t stop you being an asshole. Take a hint.
- Please. For the love of all that’s holy, please do not ever start a conversation on finding out that I am Jewish with the words ‘oh but you don’t look/act Jewish’, or by saying ‘oh that’s amazing, so I saw a documentary this one time on the History channel…’. Just don’t.
I tell you I am Jewish.
You think smoked salmon
think Seder, think Matzes
think payas and beards and black.
This poem could have started with a joke.
‘In order to have peace and be happy,
you must kill all the Jews
and all the shoemakers.’
And you ask me, ‘But why the shoemakers?’
My mother emigrated twice so that I
would not instinctively grasp the punchline
but inheritance is not so easily left behind
on borders or at Customs.
I recently got talking to a guy on the train
and on noticing my necklace
he asked what it meant;
when I explained, his first reaction
was to tell me about how he once visited Poland
and we all know where this story is going.
Is this really what we have been reduced to?
We have all heard the stories –
when every family has a legend within living memory
of the one who made it,
the one who got away,
of the many who were dragged, blinking and dazed
from their beds in the dead of night
and never heard from again,
is it any wonder we all of us carry
the burden of survivor’s guilt?
My housemate Jules had a great uncle
whose tale is passed down like Shabat silver
of how he walked with the children
into showers which he knew
were not hot water,
just so they would not be frightened.
She did not need to tell me the look
her grandmother wore to recount it;
peel back the denim and the soft living
and we are all two steps from the doors
that only lock from the outside,
from unclaimed wedding rings,
shorn hanks of hair, false teeth and soap.
This is the legacy whcih I am not allowed
to publicly claim as my own,
the ugly cooked pork stink your schoolbooks
are not permitted to render,
and this is all that is really remembered of my people.
It took ten years of living here
before my mother would put a Mezuzah on our door,
and though I have not spoken Hebrew in years
she still flinches to see me wearing yellow,
cannot believe me when I tell her
that this is far behind us.
I believed it myself, once,
but somewhere along the line anti-Semitism
has become cool again
and believing can be hard some days.
My ex-boyfriend was Catholic
and he once suggested that it would be funny
to tell our kids at Easter
that mummy’s people killed daddy’s God.
I wonder if he ever realised how close
those words were to the gallows, to the cattle trucks,
to the gas chambers and incinerators
I wonder how he ever thought a couple of history classes
and a space in my bed gave him
a free pass to claim that by association
he had a right to make those jokes.
For the record – I do not keep my gold
in a pouch around my neck,
I do not play the fiddle and my fear of heights
means I would not be seen dead on a rooftop;
chicken soup really does cure everything,
‘oy’ is not a word, it is an entire vocabulary,
and telling me that I ‘pass’,
that you could never tell ‘what’ I am
is not a compliment.
I should not have to wash my skin a darker colour
to remind you that tact is not a priveliged choice
reserved only for those people who don’t look like you.
I am more than a barcode branded in the pages
of some textbook,
but when all you think when you hear my language
is smoke stacks, mass graves,
a pile of discarded shoes,
what does that make me but a dead horse,
feel free to flog?
Sure, identity gets a little fuzzy
when it is no longer delineated on your arm,
but I come from a culture of survival
and we resurrected our language
like the messiah we birthed,
and while its taste is bitter as Pesach herbs
banned for so many centuries that it feels foreign
on tongues born to speak it
every syllable feels like a homecoming.
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam
I come from the first generation to be born
with both feet on this side of a tombstone
Baruch atah Adonai
my culture is still a millstone of shame
that it does not do to speak of in public
but ours is the first generation
that has a voice to do so.
Baruch atah Adonai
mine is the first generation where it is not
remarkable that I have German or Muslim friends
or that the only arguments we have
are over a dislike of bacon
or the eternal question of ‘Lox or hummus’
(even though we really know the answer is
‘why not both?’)
We are the first generation
to not wear our identities like a battle scar
we are the first to step outside of the barbed wire
We are the first to realise we carry
the survivor’s guilt of our forebears
So why – why? – can we not be the first generation
to cast it off like shackles
and finally step forward wiht the grace
our newfound lightness affords?
I tell you I am Jewish.
You think kippah