Sep 2007 Journal
Point of View: What is a Jew?
Only after I had been to the 1999 Kindertransport reunion did I realise the variety of experiences that met us bewildered, unaccompanied child refugees after we got off the train at Liverpool Street station. Some of us went to hostels run by the Jewish community, others to Christian families. I was one of the few to be fostered by a Polish-Jewish couple. They brought me up in total ignorance of my fellow German and Austrian refugees, who lived in ‘British West Hampstead’ and congregated at the Cosmo.
My foster-parents had emigrated to this country before the First World War. They brought with them the mores of the small-town community they came from. They spoke good English, but preferred Yiddish or Polish. My foster-mother had a nice line in Yiddish proverbs and putdowns, some of them unprintable. Apart from the time when we were evacuated, it would not have occurred to her to live anywhere but in a Jewish community with a Jewish butcher and baker, so I was brought up mainly in Stamford Hill. Religion was loosely worn in our home, yet our life was bounded by the festivals. Friday night meant candles and chicken soup and on the High Days and Holy Days there were trips to the synagogue. More severe observances were kept to a minimum. ‘We're not fanatics’, my foster-mother would say. For me, it meant Hebrew classes twice a week. I had a solid Jewish upbringing with all its benefits and its narrowness.
At school you entered an entirely different world, where you learned about Magna Carta and English poetry. Multiculturalism had not yet set in, so there was no interchange between the two worlds. We Jewish girls lived in two separate compartments with sly jokes that would have been incomprehensible to our teachers
Now I come across a new term: ‘secular Jews’. A Christian friend asked: ‘If some of your people don’t keep the religion, how can they be Jews?’ I could reply: ‘Some of you people respect Christian values, but don’t go to church.’
What then does it mean to be a secular Jew? Some say it means respecting the Jewish contribution to culture and standing up for Jews if they are attacked. They find the dietary laws irrelevant in an age of refrigeration and synagogue services alien to the Western tradition they have been exposed to at school and in the media. So, what do you pass on to your children as the essence of Judaism? Can something so nebulous act as a framework to life, or are there other values and influences to add? Can Judaism itself adapt to change or will the last person in the synagogue turn out the light?