Memoir

On becoming a Jew

If you ever forget you're a Jew, a Gentile will remind you.

– Bernard Malamud

BROOKLYN LAUNDRY, 2002: Sometimes I am asked how it feels to be a Jew in Australia. For years I had not considered myself a Jew. I was a woman, writer, lover, feminist, social worker and serial immigrant with a hyphenated national identity – Russian-Israeli-Australian – but I hardly identified as a Jew. I ate pork, lived outside Caulfield, had a multicultural circle of friends, and when I first arrived in Australia on the eve of the millennium, I was charmed by the gentle Australian men. I ended up marrying a Jew, but only by default. His upbringing and education were more those of an Aussie.

Recently I participated in an academic literary colloquium, reading my piece about a true story that happened to my mother in a Brooklyn laundry shortly after she immigrated to America.

My orthodox mother, unmistakably Jewish in a wig and opaque stockings despite New York's sticky summer, was waiting for her laundry to dry. The smells of fresh soap and stale clothes mixed in the airless room. A girl – maybe twelve, maybe a bit older, her raven-coloured hair braided into two neat plaits and her denim mini-skirt revealing the strong legs of an adolescent – stuck her tongue out at my mother while her own mother wasn't watching. It might have been a mistake, but she did it again. Then she gave my mother the finger. My mother tucked her head into her book.

The girl's mother walked out to smoke. Only my mother and the girl remained now in the stuffy laundry. The girl came closer in feline movements too adult for her age and whispered: "Bloody Jew, piss off. Bloody Jew ..." She nudged my mother, just a little bit, with her arm.

After I finished my reading, people approached me, saying how shocked they were upon hearing my story: Surely nowadays things like this hardly ever happen ...

As I drove home alongside the azure beach of the most liveable city in the world, where kangaroos, Greeks, Jews, Italians and Aussies all reside together, I doubted that my writing had done justice to my mother's feelings. I wondered what this particular incident had meant to her. Had it registered also in her mind as an accident in the modern, liberal world?

Strangely, it wasn't this incident itself, but the reaction of my peers, that made me do some soul searching. It occurred to me that, as my mother stretched her words along the New York-Melbourne line, putting on a cheerful bravado – "I whispered to her, but very firmly: 'You little bitch, if you don't stop now, I'll call the police'." – I had responded to her story with the same shock and disbelief as the university audience. On that drive, I also recalled her brief silence which followed my reaction – unusual for my chatty mother.

From my car window, I watched palms and beach-going people. How lucky I was to live here, in serene Melbourne. In the mid-1980s, when I was a child and my family emigrated from Russia to Israel, my mother had felt similarly privileged. After her years in the Soviet Union (where everyone was equal but some were less equal, especially if they happened to be Jews, and where as a Masters graduate she had to work cleaning parks because of KGB persecution), she had arrived in the Jewish land foolishly expecting to find utopia.

We lived then in an immigrants' hostel: five people in two tiny rooms with iron beds. My mother insisted on keeping the door unlocked until one day my father, whose Hebrew was the best of all of us, read us a newspaper article about Israeli jails. My mother and I both gasped in disbelief: Jews as thieves? Murderers? Rapists? There is no such a thing ... but the doors were locked from then on.

I thought of my mother who, heavy-bodied but agile, climbed the Golan Mountain in her long dress and sneakers, and who in Jerusalem's eastern part of mosques and Allah Akhbar talked to a local Arab about the meaning of life. My mother who, even while locking the doors, still passionately loved every centimetre of that land for so long. Yet, seventeen years after our arrival, disillusioned with Israel's institutional corruption and politics, again she fulfilled her Jewish role of wanderer.

She came to America still believing in utopia. Despite the obvious hardships of being an immigrant in her early fifties, she embraced the American system with enthusiasm. Another phone conversation comes to mind.

"I took a taxi and the driver was Russian. Of course he turned out to be an ex-engineer ... Anyway, I asked what he thought of America. "It's not America," he replied. "It's Americhka!"

"I'm not sure I understand."

"I'll give you an example: here if your income is under a certain amount you get a tax refund at the end of the year. Can you imagine a law like that in Israel? This is exactly what he meant. Darling Americhka."

I was still driving. And thinking. And watching the pale-blue sky embroidered with sunshine. I never tire of Melbourne's beauty, just as my mother is utterly taken with New York's dense foliage and art galleries. While struggling to find employment and an affordable apartment, she still cultivates, with her tireless energy, love for this tough city. She passionately appreciates whatever it bestows upon her: markets, convenient public transport, good education for my brothers. The city is like her new beloved. That day in the laundry, I now believe, was his first betrayal.

 

CAUFIELD 2000: I told the story to my Israeli friend, who has been living in Melbourne longer than I. Both of us have witnessed several anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli verbal attacks since migrating, but agreed that in contemporary Australia it has never been the norm. We have never felt particularly singled out.

My friend thought I was over-reacting.

"What are you saying? That the West is incurably anti-Semitic? That Jews will never find a refuge? What do you expect? You said yourself, there is no such thing as utopia. It's not always about Jews: it's human nature to dislike outsiders. Luckily we live in a place where most people are tolerant."

I walked away even more disturbed, thinking I was turning into a true diaspora Jew, infested with paranoia a la Woody Allen.

Having spent most of my life in Israel, accustomed to being a majority in that country, I was naturally less preoccupied with my ethnicity than the Jewish community in Australia. Isaiah Berlin, an English-Jewish philosopher, once said: "In Israel I don't particularly feel a Jew, but in England I do."

Diasporas tend to perceive their countries of origin as symbols for their particular yearnings, rather than as complex realities. The Jewish diaspora is no different. As the Israeli-Australian anthropologist Dr Cohen puts it: "Many Israelis living in Australia feel that the local Jewish community likes Israel (as central to their Jewish identity), but dislikes Israelis. The community doesn't like seeing them leaving the country, even though they themselves live here. This is the paradox."

Consequently, Israeli migrants often develop dubious relationships with the Jewish diaspora. It is the same with families: technically, you are of the same blood – but not necessarily organically compatible. I owed the Jewish community, though. As a new immigrant, I struggled to find decent employment with my Israeli qualifications and work history. A major charitable Jewish organisation gave me my first chance, employing me to run a fundraising campaign based, of course, in Caulfield, where everybody knew everybody and Yiddish was spoken as much as English.

Raising money that went into water recycling and tree planting in both Israel and Australia was an exercise of real value. I plunged myself into the work, admiring the generosity of the community members who donated their time and money. Yet I wasn't organically compatible. As an ex-Soviet child brought up on everyday portions of uncontested patriotism, I grew up suspicious of any rhetoric, and everything to do with Israel was uncontested in Caulfield.

I knew from first-hand experience how Israel was imperfect, based in an impossible location and dealing with impossible problems. Its people – both Arabs and Jews – were busy surviving rather than simply living. Every day you hadn't exploded, or been shot, or robbed of your money by the taxation office or an unfair employer was a good day. In such extreme circumstances, the reality was shifting constantly from beautiful to horrific and vice versa. People were corrupt and courageous, selfish and kind. Living in Israel was like riding a roller coaster day after day. But I couldn't really talk about this at work.

I felt so ambivalent in Caulfield, where people took on astronomic mortgages just to live amongst other Jews creating a quasi-shtetl, and sometimes remained single in the absence of a suitable Jewish spouse, spending weekends at Jewish functions amongst the same people they had known since school. If that was what it meant to be a Jew, then I definitely wasn't one.

"There is something you don't get," a thirty-something Australian-Jewish woman told me. After spending her youth in Jewish schooling, at Jewish functions and in Jewish neighbourhoods, she had broken free and moved to Byron Bay.

"We huddle together, because we're a traumatised community. Our parents and grandparents are mostly war refugees, some raised us in houses stuffed with canned foods, just in case another war broke out."

Indeed, the Holocaust has been deeply internalised as a lingering residue within the subsequent generations of Jews. Though memories of it are often loudly invoked, writes the academic and writer Eva Hoffman, it is rarely discussed, unpacked or processed. Unable to come to terms with its impacts and legacy, we replay in our minds a tragic narrative which neither empowers nor enlightens us.

It is not only the tragic past that never really loosens its grip on our present; we are also trapped by the looming, hypothetical future. Memories of the Holocaust become a constant reminder to stay on guard. Holocaust survivor Primo Levi wrote of the Holocaust as "a fundamental, unexpected event, fundamental precisely because unexpected, not foreseen by anyone. It took place in the teeth of all forecasts; it happened in Europe."

This unexpectedness has understandably caused a lot of fear in generations to follow, but has also engendered a rhetoric. For the post-Holocaust Jewish community, Israel is the embodiment of the hope "Never again!" so questioning the country's ways can be seen to undermine Jews' own security.

Gradually I started realising how much pain there was in Caulfield, disguised with merry klezmer tunes.

I was forming a counter-argument to my Israeli friend. Jews are not merely other outsiders. Since the Romans threw us out of Israel, for centuries we have missed out on the normalising experience of possessing a home that most other diasporas had at some stage. This perpetual homelessness, the lack of origins, also made the Jews more suspicious in their "host countries" – it turned them into extra-outsiders. Stalin is known to have said that the Jewish lack of a homeland made them "mystical, intangible, other-worldly".

Our national psyche has developed differently based on this constant oscillation between prospering in the host countries, then being persecuted for this same prospering and other prejudices, and moving on again and again. This odd condition finally culminated in the Holocaust.

A PLANE TO Melbourne, 2004: I lived far from Caufield, in a beachside suburb, and finally found work within my profession in an Australian workplace. But my Jewish fate pursued me there, beating its wings on my window, knocking its head off. It began with fleeting, singular incidents, just as in my mother's story.

On a plane to Melbourne, my future husband chatted with an Australian businesswoman about the events of September 11. "Well," the woman said, "it was all obviously planned by the Jews. Don't you see they control the world?" She had no idea he was one of them.

I laughed upon hearing the story. The woman was an insignificant exception in Australia, a country proud of its multiculturalism. To be sure, though, for a week I surfed Australian internet forums debating current affairs. To my surprise, conspiracy theories about Jews were alive and kicking. I wasn't sure what it meant to be a Jew, but many had ideas on what we were after. Jews were greedy, wealthy (on my social worker's salary, being a Jew suddenly sounded rather appealing ...) and controlled American politics – especially in the Middle East. Interestingly, in 2004 only about a quarter of American Jews voted for Bush, and the US right-wing extremists actually accused American Jews of spreading socialist values.

Historically speaking, in turbulent times Jews have often found themselves in the midst of the conflict. Sometimes one could even say it was of their own doing, as in the Russian Revolution, but more often they were scapegoats. In the Middle Ages, there was a widespread belief that Jews enjoyed killing Christian children and poisoning wells to spread the plague. The blame has continued well into our times: New York Times researcher George Johnson has observed that the main targets of conspiracy theories in the twentieth century were Jews.

So, in the new millennium – as the West and Islam are clashing – Jews are at centre stage, stuck in between as usual. Christos Tsiolkas's uneasy book Dead Europe (Vintage, 2005) portrays this reality, with its freak show of Jew-hating characters across various countries and strata. As I followed my gloomy internet search results recalling my husband's story, one of the book's characters came to mind – the Sarajevo survivor who blamed Americans (or, more precisely, American Jews) for the civil war in her country. She spoke about 9/11 in a similar vein to the businesswoman on the plane: "I was glad to see those Jews jumping from those burning buildings. They deserved their towers to burn."

Over the past five years, there has been an unprecedented revival of anti-Semitism worldwide. In Germany, someone wrote on a memorial to the Holocaust victims: "Sixty years later, and we are still guilty? No!!!!" Sami al-Arian, a Palestinian-American professor, declared recently that God considers all Jews "monkeys and swine". At a conference in October 2005, the Iranian President repeated the Ayatollah Khomeini's idea that Israel must be "wiped off the map". The West was outraged, yet most in the Muslim world haven't expressed a public condemnation of this statement. The most reasonable response from the Middle East actually came from the Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, who told the BBC: "What we need to be talking about is adding the state of Palestine to the map and not wiping Israel off the map." And in Newcastle, Australia, where I spent a few great days participating in a writers' festival, "Jews must die" was spray-painted on a synagogue.

The world was tightening in on itself, even in my remote beach suburb. Politics suddenly seemed very personal. Yes, perhaps Jewish paranoia belonged to Caulfield, whereas I was secular, cosmopolitan, ethnically androgynous. But I could feel my crooked Jewish nose lengthening like Pinocchio's. Just like him, I was lying – mainly to myself – and had been doing so for many years. It's not that I wasn't a Jew – I had just never wanted to be one. After all, so many times we have been dispossessed of our belongings, exiled, tortured, burnt alive (the lucky ones were forcefully baptised), gassed, during pogroms our children's heads were smashed on stone and women were raped, and much more. Why would I want to be a Jew?

But I couldn't run away for much longer. I was becoming a Jew, despite myself.

As my husband finished telling the story from the flight, he added: "I have a solution to cure the world of anti-Semitism. Let's open a Jew Zoo."

"A Jew Zoo?"

"Yes. Let's put some Jews in a zoo so people can visit and observe them regularly. Perhaps they'll see we're human beings."

 

MOSCOW HOSPITAL, 1981: Simon Klimowitsky, a Melbourne-based Russian poet of Jewish origin, says even the Jews themselves cannot be sure who they are. They are hybrids – the most enigmatic ethnicity.

Indeed, as a nation, we make an odd one. We are much older than our fifty-seven-year-old country that contains about one-third of all the Jews in the world. A million more Jews live in the United States than in Israel. Overall, we are spread across about a hundred countries, as far-ranging as Zimbabwe and Kazakhstan. And no such a thing as a Jewish look even exists, despite Chagall's famous paintings of curly-haired people with melancholic eyes. We can be red-haired, blue-eyed, possess chiselled Hellenic noses, or appear Ethiopian, Indian and in rare cases Asian.

What is the invisible ribbon binding us all? How does one feel Jewish? In search of a common ground, we are often reduced to the Holocaust and the Israeli-Arab conflict, but we have so many other facets. Our diaspora, amongst the most hard-working and high-achieving of minorities, has lent itself to competing ideologies and spiritual pursuits from communism to Buddhism to capitalism and has produced a legacy of thinkers like Einstein, revolutionaries like Trotsky, writers and artists like Bashevis Singer, Modigliani and so on. So who are we? What is our common denominator?

The Australian academic Ien Ang, interviewed by Mary Zournazi for her book Foreign Dialogues (Pluto Press, 1998), observes the Jewish psyche through a literary lens: "Self-hatred is prominent in a lot of Jewish literature ... [self-hatred] relates to an experience where you are constructed as a foreigner or a stranger."

The word "Jew" – just like "woman" – is loaded, implying double standards for its carriers, being perceived as a perpetual outsider even in their immediate environment. Perhaps being a Jew is indeed like being a woman. To borrow from Simone de Beauvoir, one is not born, but rather becomes a Jew. Jewish identity is shaped largely in response to the world's reactions to us. Like women, Jews share a history of discrimination across nations, generations, cultures and languages. We have always stood out, despite the best efforts of some to fit in.

I suggest renaming anti-Semitism "anti-assimilationism".

The first time I became a Jew was when I was about eight, still living in communist Russia, and was admitted to a Moscow hospital for heart surgery.

In hospitals, as in any place where death is in such close proximity to the living, the national psyche lies bare, undisguised by rhetoric. The free Soviet public health system was in fact so expensive that people who could not afford to bribe every nurse and doctor in the clinics and hospitals died. In the children's ward, we lay for hours with no one to change our chamber pots, brush our knotted hair which had become breeding grounds for lice or give us pain-killers. Yet that common despair didn't lead us to any particular bonding. We kept to the rituals of our ages and cultures, and so I was utterly excluded as the only Jew. When I returned after the surgery with my upper body enclosed in a dressing and my chest itching painfully, I tried to fall asleep, to get through the night somehow.

"The Jewish princess has come back," said the oldest girl – who soon would die. "I have an idea. Let's sing all night so she won't be able to sleep. I've got lots of new lyrics. If you sing, I'll let you copy them tomorrow." They sang and sang, the whole night.

On that night, the longest in my life, I was becoming and unbecoming a Jew, all at once. For the first time, I realised the full extent of the gap between me and them, but I was also determined to bridge it.

I wanted to sleep well for the rest of my life.

 

KRYAL CASTLE, BALLARAT, 2005: Cruising through a world full of prejudice and hatred towards you, you feel it imprint itself on your psyche. After experiencing the extreme, you are then more prone to extremes yourself in order to escape. Some, like me, find consolation in utopian cosmopolitanism at a cost of denying their roots, whereas others isolate themselves from the outside world, cultivating some sort of superiority – even though both choices originate from the same desperation, the same need for refuge and "never again".

On my wedding night at Kryal Castle, I asked my mother to give a speech. She walked to the stage past coats of arms adorned with crucifixes and past our French, Pakistani, Jewish, Chinese, Italian and Australian guests in her Orthodox Jewish outfit – a surreal vision of true multiculturalism.

"I'm so delighted," my mother announced, echoing underneath the Gothic ceiling, "on this great day to be amongst all the Jews ..."

"Mama," I shouted, "not everyone is Jewish here." As though she didn't know.

"But Jewish people are the best."

The following week, when I called friends to apologise for this incident, most said they understood what she said to be a joke. I wasn't convinced. I grew up with my parents reacting to the world mainly through a Jewish "prism", watching titles of American movies to see whether the director was Jewish and favouring books on Jewish topics. Perhaps my refusal to be a Jew was also rooted there, in that childhood of forced division.

 

EVERY JEWISH CLOSET, 2006: Is full of skeletons. So is mine. I still struggle to reconcile the image of my distressed mother in the Brooklyn laundry, and that of her speaking triumphantly at my wedding. It is easier to love her in the laundry than at Kryal Castle, just as it is easier for me to visit Caulfield occasionally and enjoy the succulent Yiddish and kosher bagels than live or work in the suburb. It is easier to forgive those Russian girls from the hospital, especially as some of them are dead by now, but it becomes increasingly difficult to keep dismissing the current political climate in which the hydra of anti-Semitism is growing anew its ancient, horrific heads.

It is also impossible to keep dismissing my origins. Nowadays, as the racial and religious tensions rise, we are all – even against our wills – becoming a bit more Jewish, or Muslim, or American, or Australian, or whatever.

So I am a bit Jewish nowadays, and follow a more consistent version of cosmopolitanism with regard to Jews too – it's not about me and them anymore, Caulfield versus the beach. I take more interest in our history and follow current affairs more intently. And, perhaps for the first time, I let the pain of being a Jew into my life. Resistance and logic fade and I am flooded with an overwhelming sadness for our not-so-distant past of exiles, pogroms, for the six millions and for the present of the Promised Land which has been turned into chaotic, bleeding ground.

I am also sad about what the future might bring in light of increasing fanaticism and war.

Brian Castro wrote in Griffith REVIEW 8: Our Global Face that real thought is always in between, inseparable from the complexity of feeling, suffering from contradiction. I agree with him that contradiction is the experience of truth. I experience it now. At the same time that I am becoming Jewish, I also feel most acutely the urgency to preserve my old beliefs in some mysterious commonality of human nature, hoping – perhaps naïvely – this can be an antidote to the storm of hatred brewing all around.

I began this essay with the question of how it feels to be a Jew in Australia. I want to believe that nowadays I am more able to answer it.

I still maintain I'm immensely lucky to live here, in a country whose greatest downfall (or perhaps advantage?) is that it is laid back. I believe this even in the aftermath of the Cronulla riots: I see them not as a rule, but as an ugly exception. I am lucky in this spacious land where people still smile at strangers on the streets. But the word "lucky" is not synonymous with feeling safe, and means instead arbitrary and incidental. Lucky is a fragile word. And this, I guess, is my point – there is a fragility embedded in being a Jew that none of us can ever escape, no matter what colour our skin is or what we believe.

Isaiah Berlin once said: "I do not think that there is a country where Jews feel totally secure, where they do not ask themselves: 'How do I look to others?'" Most likely, this same uneasiness is what I am inheriting as I am slowly becoming a Jew.

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