Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Trouble With Anglo-Jewry: Our hang-ups

A classic interview on T4's Popworld between Simon Amstell and Rachel Stevens highlighted a couple of interesting things about the Anglo-Jewish persona:

SA: So, Rachel - what do you think is the best bit about being Jewish?
RS: Er, er... (publicist frantically motioning to producer to cut)
SA: Personally, I think it's the latkes and the guilt.
RS: Huh (and later she refuses to ever be interviewed by Popworld or Amstell again)

What insight does this give us on the Anglo-Jewish psyche? Well, for a start there's disparity in whether we wear our identity on our sleeve or hide it in the small print of our CV. Stevens is embarrassed to talk publicly about her religion, whilst Amstell is confident enough to make a joke - that much is obvious. But what else is going on in our heads, and how telling is Amstell's answer to his own question?

As the comment on my last TWAJ posting pointed out, our perspective is "reflective of, and dependant (sic) on you being brought up in a well-off, united synagogue-esque, quite religious Jewish circumstance". The Anglo-Jewish community is a largely self-perpetuating body of middle-class, university-educated, professionals, who send their kids to private, grammar or Jewish state schools, thus conferring on them the right kind of start to achieve the same or better for themselves in turn.

So there is a certain weight of expectation on young Jews like us. Sis and I were musing over lunch about the lack of nice Jewish boys in north-west London. She felt a bit guilty about her snobbery of not wanting to go out with the guy behind the counter in Tesco, but thought that such a man either lacked the education/intellect or the drive/ambition to better himself, and was therefore not boyfriend material. It's not unreasonable and certainly not solely a Jewish thing - I would expect most middle-class folk to think similarly.

But it highlights something that makes us different as a community, which is reflected in Simon Amstell's throwaway line on latkes and guilt. Look at how we live in north-west London our entire lives, except for a brief excursion to Israel for machon or yeshiva, and 3 years at a Jew-niversity in Leeds, Manchester or Birmingham. We pick up middle-class, London-centric jobs as lawyers, doctors and accountants. Then we settle with (for?) a nice Jewish wife who teaches or whatever, have some kids and start the cycle again. As our parents grow older, they might retire to a flat in St John's Wood, then a Jewish old people's home in Golder's Green or Hendon, so we stay nearby.

We are trapped by the ghetto walls of the M25 to the north and the Thames to the south. We are restricted by the weight of expectation to get a "good" job ie one that allows our mothers to shep* naches among their friends. In turn I think these things can make us unhappy, guilt-ridden people.

By and large, the one thing I am jealous of with non-Jews is that they have more space. There is more permissiveness (not always good), they can relax, be who they want to be, live wherever they like. If they don't like their City job and chuck it in to become a snowboarding instructor, they are likely to be admired by their friends for following their dream, and supported by their families for doing what makes them happy and fulfilled.

Imagine one of us doing the same. Think of the guilt: "you're throwing away your education for THAT", "no nice Jewish girl wants to marry a ski-bum", "how bubbe and zaide would turn in their neat Bushey graves if they knew" etc etc.

And our insularity does no more for Jewish pride than Rachel Stevens ducking the question. We need to be capable of thriving without the huge Jewish framework that we take for granted and largely under-use, which is actually quite suffocating and claustrophobic. Having lived in Sheffield and Edinburgh, I am a strong advocate of the smaller community.

Restoring Jewish pride and deposing Jewish guilt is about a few things:
- getting rid of the complacency that comes of having a shul every 2 miles, kosher food in every Tesco, and a Cohen or Levy in every surgery, law firm and estate agent
- exposing as many people as possible to leadership positions, which leads to communal ownership and care
- seeking a meaningful Judaism rather than doing it because of the Holocaust or because "we always have"

We need to care a lot less about what our community/family/friends, with all their stolid expectations, will think of us. We should liberate ourselves from the shackles of the north London ghetto, and we should expect a communal infrastructure to support and encourage us to do so (keep an eye out for a future posting elaborating on my strategy for this).

Stevens may be more famous than Amstell (and a damn sight better looking) but she seems ashamed of her roots, or perhaps lacks the confidence to discuss them - either because they are not integral to her identity or because she is nervous of the reaction of her peers and target audience. She demonstrates what it is to be an inhibited, guilt-ridden Jew.

By contrast, Amstell seems to have an American-Jewish outlook; it's so intrinsic to him, he's so overtly Jewish and works it so beautifully and naturally into his performance, in a style that demonstrates how relaxed he is with his identity, that his audience get the joke and enjoy him all the more. He demonstrates what it is to be a free-spirited, latke-toting Jew.

Latkes beat guilt any day, although they'll both kill you in the end...

*Thanks Abe for the correction on shlepp-shep - see comment!


Anonymous said...

Hi Michael, nice posting, still chewing over your various points in my head however I just wanna pick you up on a minor Yiddish expression you've used.

You're not the first I hasten to add but I've heard a number of people in the Anglo Jewish world using the expression to 'shlepp naches' when in fact the expression is actually to 'shep naches' i.e. to draw nachess. The Yiddish metaphor really being that nachess is comparared to a well, a veritable font of joy of which the parents draw from.

It may be easier to understand the expression in the context of the havdala where it says: "veshaftem mayim besason mimainai hayeshua", and you shall draw water with joy from the wells of salvation.

'Shlepp', on the other hand means to lug, usually used negatively with reference to the moving of something heavy and burdensome. You can shep with joy but you don't generally shlep joyfully.

As a young Yiddisher boy I have heard the expression to 'shep nachess' many many times by teachers and parents but never 'shlep nachess'. My theory is that as 'shlep' is used and commonly understood and 'shep' sounds so similar (but relatively unknown) that somehow people hear 'shlepp' instead of 'shep' and morphed into the expression you've used.

Every time I hear the expression 'shlep nachess' I picture a middle-aged Jewish parent dragging a heavy sack labelled nachess behind them and it makes me chuckle.

Whether you shep or you shlep Michael - do it joyfully!! :)


Johannes Kerkorrel II said...

Hi Michael

An interesting view on Anglo Jewish life and it does make for a lot of interesting thoughts.

The first blog I ever posted touched on a part of your blog concerning the checkout person at TESCO's.

Would appreciate your thoughts on my blog and would appreciated your views/comments on the matter. I live up North, You live down South. We as single Jews are all finding it hard to meet (and eventually marry) partners of the opposite sex so would like to know your views on the 'Jewish scene'


"Johannes Kerkorrel II" (