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Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Hybrid Jew

So it seems that after all that kerfuffle,  I won’t now be able to apply for my Scottish passport.  My father was born and raised in Glasgow and that meant that I would have been eligible for one.  But we’ve had our nationally televised Great British Break Off – and it’s not to be.
 I remember that word ‘kerfuffle’ from my childhood, from when I was a ‘wee lad’. I heard it a lot growing up, and I suppose I always thought it was Yiddish: it often went with that other word that described those who were involved in kerfuffles: ‘meshuggenahs’. So my mistake isn’t that surprising. Actually it’s Scottish, ‘kerfuffle’, meaning  ‘disorder/agitation’ – but it’s in every dictionary of the English language, or should we say ‘British’ language, as an informal word  for ‘fuss’ or ‘commotion’. But in its onomatopoeic weirdness ‘kerfuffle’ is  so much more evocative to my ear than those very ‘English’ words. Kerfuffle:  a concocted, fluffed up argument over trifles...
It’s quite common in childhood to grow up with a mishmash of languages in our head – I’m sure I absorbed lots of words from my parents, from family, from school, as well as from what I read; nowadays it’s also from globalised TV programmes and music. We are all internationalists in our speech, in our everyday talking, we are all speaking hybrid sentences all the time. ‘Mishmash’ – you hear it every day from BBC correspondents and Eton-educated man-of-the-people politicians – it’s come into so-called ‘English’ via Yiddish from the Middle High German. I even heard Nigel Farage use it. None of us are national purists when it comes to how we talk.
When it comes to language we can see what a strange concept nationalism is, how artificial a construct it is – however rigorously we try to police the boundaries and borders of our national language, immigrant words just creep in, or are smuggled in, even when they are not actively embraced in acts of colonisation: pyjamas, juggernaut, loot, bungalow, cot, cushy - even dear old ‘Blighty’.  And you can’t get a more British word than that Hindi expression. We’re all mongrels when we talk.
Hebrew is the same – not just modern Hebrew , Ivrit, the most successful language revitalisation project in history, a revival led by Eliezer ben-Yehudah at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century which took Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew and grafted into it Yiddish, Polish, English, German, Ladino and Arabic words – amongst others – to create a new language for a new nation-state, which has had to keep adding words as the years have gone by: so you have to use your intuitzia to sort out the informatzia you get from the televisia, for example,  because the compozitzia of a proportzia of it is - how to say it? – trivia.
You can never keep the field of language free from cross-fertilisation from alien imports. The wind of trans-national communication blows – like the divine spirit, the ruach Elohim fluttering over the face of the deep – and the seeds of language drift across boundaries and regenerate languages, keeping them creatively alive and fertile resources for us to use and misuse. Miscegenation is the norm, the name of the game.
It’s not just modern Hebrew. Classical Hebrew too is polyglot: God might have dictated the Torah  to Moses word by word, but if so then Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu was quite a linguist: maybe it was just His wicked sense of humour but something was going on when He decided to use a foreign word, in fact several foreign words, as names for Himself: El, El Elyon, El Shaddai, all derive from pre-Hebraic  Canaanite and Ugaratic words for various gods. And the decision to call His people Yisrael was just inspired: you can still hear the old Canaanite god El planted within the name of our people, idling away, as if to subvert any atavistic wish for Jewish ethnic purity for ‘our people’. Whenever we say Israel, Yisrael, we are reminding ourselves – if we have ears to hear – that ‘otherness’ is part of us, innately.
The Jewish people have inherited a name – Israel/Yisrael - that is both a religious identity and now, latterly, the name of a state. But both echo with this subversive reminder that our membership of Klal Yisrael, the community of Israel, includes parts of the past we might have thought we’ve left behind.  Being a Jew means being a hybrid – there’s no escape. We’ve always been taking from and reacting against the non-Jewish worlds we lived in. Our Jewish psyches are like an archaeological site, layered by history: dig inside us and we find the triumphs and tragedies of bygone years, the pride and the fears, traces of all the cultures we lived in over the generations: where do you think we got hamentaschen from on Purim, or cheesecake on Shavuot, or twisted challah on Shabbat? We took them over from the cultures we lived in and made them our own. Like El in Yisrael.
Our souls are like a cliff face open to the elements and revealing the variegated strata of centuries, and geologists of the psyche can rejoice in seeing how we are filled with impure mixtures of Ashkenazi sediments and Sephardi fossils and Islamic and Christian and pagan minerals. Whether Jews by choice or Jews by fate, you join your own story to that of Israel/ Yisrael – and that identity, (with the old Canaanite god El lurking in the background) is gloriously impure, mongrel, rich in the blessings of multiplicity rather than the one-dimensional fanaticism that attaches itself to notions of purity.
Jews above all should know the importance of this theme of the hybrid - because we have been the victims of a mentality that believed the opposite, that a people’s culture was and should be mono-dimensional, monolithic: Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein F├╝hrer (one people, one nation, one leader) – that was the fantasy of ethnic purity and we know where it led, and where it still leads. And I am not alone in detecting it in some of the more extreme voices in the Knesset and the West Bank. And when we hear it we must call it by its name. From the depths of our multi-layered mongrel Jewish souls we call into question, call to task, fantasies of national or ethnic purity.
This hybridity is threaded through the Jewish story from the earliest times, and it operates on the fundamental  level of language, as I’ve said, as well as within the stories of the tradition – remember that mixed multitude of people who left Egypt along with the Hebrew people and lived and journeyed  with them and had children with them and produced the next generations of Israel through that 40 years of desert wandering? A story that tells us, just as an aside, that Moses married Zipporah, daughter of a Midianite priest. It’s as if the storytellers want to keep reminding us that ethnic purity is a fantasy. That we are all hybrids.
And nationalism, like religious ideology, can become an elaborate and sometimes, tragically, deadly serious game to hide this discomforting fact of life. Our world is filled with death-dealing in the name of nationalism, which becomes even more toxic when laced with religion – the Middle East is full of it self-evidently, and Russia and Ukraine come to mind, but they are only the tip of the iceberg - which is why for me, to return to the referendum, although I could see the emotional appeal of independence and Scottish nationalism, I am very happy still to be living in this ramshackle disordered disunited kingdom which is larger than the sum of its parts.
Perhaps part of what makes Britain ‘Great’ – in an era when that ‘greatness’ is much diminished, and much derided too in some parts (and I have some sympathy with critiques of our ‘Greatness’)  – but what makes it Great, I think, is that it implicitly recognises that these islands are home to many peoples, many tribes, and always have been: we are a cobbled-together nation that’s been able, historically, to absorb others - not just their languages, but their peoples, newcomers, immigrants, asylum seekers, century after century of them, including my Polish-born grandfather who found himself in Glasgow when he got off the boat – though I’m not sure he knew it has heading there.
It was more  for him a case, as for so many in those decades, of : we are just journeying ‘Away from Here. Away From Here: that is our destination’; ‘Away from Here’, Kafka’s words resonating into our contemporary world, when so many peoples from so many lands where there is ethnic strife and war and deprivation and hardship are making that perilous journey from fraught homelands towards the uncertain fate of a new life, ‘Away from Here’. And that our shambolic disunited kingdom can still welcome people of so many diverse lands and backgrounds and cultures is what confirms (if anything does any longer) this nation’s entitlement to still call itself ‘Great’.
But we Jews are going to have to fight for that, if we retain any belief in the importance of the notion of offering havens for the persecuted. We say it over and over, in the Torah, and in sermons you’ll have heard ad nausea:  ‘we have been strangers’ - so it is our duty, it is incumbent on us, to welcome the stranger. And if we have no vote when it comes to how our co-religionists do this in Israel, which is a whole other story, we do have a vote and a voice when it comes to this country. And this year we have an election coming up and we are going to be beaten over the head with the narrowing down, anti-immigrant, anti-European UKIP narrative, and other parties will tack to the foul winds blowing from that direction.
It’s at the New Year, in our liturgy, that we are exposed to this extraordinary part of the Jewish mythic narrative that says ‘This day all who enter the world pass before You...and you record, and count, and consider them’ :  what their fate, their life, will be in the year ahead. God is pictured as determining the destiny of every creature - that means Jews and non-Jews alike. This is part of the breathtaking chutzpah of Jewish life at this time of the year: we say, unashamedly, brazenly,  that the world revolves around us, what we do, what we fail to do, how we live, what vision we uphold, what vision we betray. The divine is involved, this story says, through the choices we make: our lives, and other people’s lives, are bound up with the process of reflection and prayer and renewed determination to live in certain ways, with particular ethical values, and with a morality congruent with our tradition. Questions of life and death, of who will live and who will die, are not only (of course) in our hands – but they are also in our hands. That’s the radical, discomforting claim of our tradition.
When I hear politicians of any kind trying to defend ethnic or national exclusivity – whether it is in Israel or in the UK – it’s then that I recognise the pluralism of identity in me. And how calls to promote an ‘us’ against a ‘them’ are OK for those who follow sport,  when it is literally a game - but are not OK when they are talking about the complexity of human beings.
You see, when I think about my own identity, part of me is British, and I enjoy that, my passport affirms it and there is a deep history behind that, much larger and richer than the relatively few generations my family has been here. And part of me is English – it wasn’t Britain whom I watched in 1966  winning the World Cup, it was the nation of William Blake and Turner and Jane Austen and Bobby Charlton. And part of me is a Mancunian and a Lancastrian who still feels connected to my roots in the north and finds southerners, North West Londoners, sometimes rather insular metropolitans living in a kind of bubble. And part of me is connected to my Scottish roots - but also to my mother’s hometown in the north-east, Sunderland. They are all parts of who I am - along with my sense of myself as a man with all the burdens and advantages that that brings; and a father; and a husband; and of course there’s my identity as a Jew, that’s close to the heart of me, but it sits alongside those other aspects of my hybrid self.
And as a Jew that means for me, inevitably through history and ‘elective affinities’ as Goethe called them, I’m a European in my guts, my kishkes; Europe - that trans-national disputed entity that I celebrate because it is larger than nationalism: so  there are textures of German culture, and French, and Polish, and Russian, that contribute to the tapestry of who I am, who I am in my hybrid Jewish self.
It’s why Dostoevsky speaks to me as much as, probably more than, Dickens. Kafka and Kierkegaard – Czech and Danish, Jew and Christian – seem to offer me a larger vision than the horizon-limiting Englishness of someone like Hilary Mantel, however lively and popular her prose. The broader perspective trumps the smaller one. “I am large, I contain multitudes” – that’s Walt Whitman, an American through and through. But still a sensibility I integrate into my own. What I’m trying to talk about here isn’t just about my personal identity; it’s, for want of a better word,  though I’m rather shy about calling it that, a moral position - it’s about seeing ourselves as bigger than the boxes our leaders, political or religious, want to put us in, broader in our horizons than national or ethnic cultures promote with their fantasies of superiority. I’m talking about trying to move away from the provincialism of national boundaries and tribal exclusiveness, working towards a sense of self that rejects a narrowing down, that is open to the global, the international.
And we need to be bigger than the national, than the tribal, than the ethnic, because the problems we face in this world are bigger than any nation can manage, any single nation can bear. The future of our planet is on the line, climate change is no respecter of national boundaries, and it’s laughable to think of nations protecting their own interests, their own businesses, their own economies, in the face of this trans-national challenge.
It’s like children protecting their own sandcastles against the advancing tide: ‘I’m the king of the castle, and you’re a dirty rascal’. We really have to grow up. That’s why for me, as a Jew, rooted in my own particular religious identity, I have to be an internationalist, I have to support the notion of being fully part of Europe, and the value of world bodies like the United Nations (whatever its faults) – I have to see the issues of the day through that extraordinary vision of the Hebrew Bible where we are given a divine voice that speaks the words of a universalistic vision from the midst of its particularism: The Eternal One called to Moses out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did ... if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, because the whole earth is mine.” (Exodus 19:5). “For Mine is the land – and you are but resident aliens with Me” (Leviticus 25:23). “The earth is the Lord’s and all who are in it, the world and all who live in it” (Psalm 24). There’s never been a time in human history when this universalistic vision within Judaism has been more urgent.
That’s part of why I’m so resistant to those appeals to the Jewish community  - from the Jewish Chronicle or the CST (our unelected, unrepresentative, self-appointed guardians) to retreat behind the barricades of our tribal ghettoes, retreat in fear from that bigger world which we belong to, and have so much to contribute to. Yes, there are people who don’t like us, but they might like us more if we were more open, more able to articulate a larger vision, more able to say that Jewishness is not only about self-preservation, and protecting our own narrow interests,  but it’s about upholding certain values: of concern for the underdog, embrace of the outsider, empathy for the deprived and the dispossessed, care for those cast aside by the relentless march of globalised capitalism with its disregard for individual well-being. Judaism is about a passion for righteousness and a hunger for justice. It’s not inward-looking, it’s about something larger than us.
When we cling to tribe, and nation, it’s because we are scared. ‘The whole world is a very narrow bridge’ – yes, Nachman of Bratslav is right – ‘but the essential thing’, he says, ha-ikkar, ‘is not to be afraid, at all’. lo-lefached klal. Let’s approach this New Year without fear, with hope, with belief, with the knowledge that our vision, our large Jewish vision, will support us, and sustain us, and can make the world a better place. Kayn yehi ratzon- may this be God’s will.
[slightly expanded from a sermon given on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year, September 26th, 2014]



Sunday, 14 September 2014

Hamlet and the Jewish New Year

"I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth” – Hamlet is responding to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. His friends are wondering why he is so morose.  And Hamlet goes on to describe how the world, and the people in it, can be viewed – but also his struggle to hold on to his optimism and delight with it all.

“What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!... and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me – nor woman neither...”

Over the last few years I have been utilising some literary texts - King Lear,  Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – as a way of approaching some of the themes of the New Year. This year Hamlet is my jumping off point - though I mused on opting, topically, for ‘the Scottish play’, Macbeth – ‘Present fears/are less than horrible imaginings...what’s done cannot be undone...’  But wherever we start, I feel we need all the help we can get.  And this year more than ever.

Because we’ve taken a battering over the year. Not only the personal stuff that afflicts us year in year out: illnesses, deaths, losses of various kinds, failures and frustrations and disappointments – all the stuff of daily life that we have to contend with, that cast shadows over our sense of well-being, that dent our optimism, that threaten to diminish our pleasure in life. That cause us to ‘lose all our mirth’. Stuff that reminds us of our fragility, our vulnerability, our mortality. And how our sense of meaning and purpose and the goodness of life is easily shaken. We are all at risk in the world.  And at this time of the year Judaism cajoles us into returning to this densely-textured stuff of daily life and reflecting on it.

But this year, in addition, we’ve had to contend with some larger themes: about Israel and the anguish of war, again; and deaths again, deaths of ‘us’ and deaths of ‘them’; and all that  wondering about the need for it, the needlessness of it, our helplessness in it, struggling to find a response to the threats and the suffering that isn’t a cry of anguish – or struggling to find a worthwhile response along with a cry of anguish.

And then realising that it’s not just about a struggle ‘over there’, but that it spills over into here -  our streets, our homes - with questions that we feel stirring within us, as we wonder about our security, people feeling threatened as Jews – though in truth there’s little real evidence for it, but a spurious Jewish Chronicle scare-mongering survey taps precisely into the Jewish nervous system, historical and atavistic, that many Jews carry deep within them.

We are actually living through a golden age of Jewish life in the UK – its vitality is amazing, there seems to be a Limmud every other week somewhere up and down the country, Jewish cultural life like we’ve not seen before, Jewish schools and restaurants opening and filled up, many synagogues are booming (OK, maybe not so much in the provinces), but charities and grassroots Jewish organisations, secular and religious, are flourishing, there’s music and books and arts and film festivals  – what a time to be Jewish here in the UK. 

But that visceral old anxiety creeps in, has crept in, over this last year, to various degrees: ‘I have of late...lost all my mirth’; and these gnawing anxieties, personal or communal, become part of what we suffer from, part of what goes into this picture of where we are now, part of what diminishes our capacity to enjoy the daily blessings of life, which are manifold. 

So this is where we are, as we return to our tradition, and a time in our calendar (Selichot) that asks us once more to reflect back on where we have been this last year, what we have done, and not done, what we have felt, and not felt, what we have achieved and what we have failed to achieve. It brings us back to ourselves: “What a piece of work is man” – yes, it is awesome (awe-inspiring and sometimes awful) to reflect on our humanity, our complexity.

We are ‘pieces of work’ – Shakespeare’s text is a kind of secular midrash on Psalm 8, which talks of human beings as aspects of God’s ‘handiwork’. What an extraordinary idea! What would it mean to live, to really live, fully alive to, alert to, being part of God’s handiwork in the world? Perhaps it’s too painful to keep ourselves aware that we are woven into the divine filigree of all creation? Each one of us. Each saint and sinner amongst us. Each frightened Israeli teenage soldier; each terrified Palestinian child. ‘What a piece of work is man.’

“How noble in reason” – part of our nobility is that we have minds that can think, that can reason, that can discriminate between good and evil (at least theoretically), that can acknowledge that we are not only a prey to emotionality and knee-jerk reactions, that we – unlike all other parts of God’s handiwork – can reflect on our experiences, can reflect on our place in the scheme of things, can dream of better worlds, can build better worlds. ‘What a piece of work is man; how noble in reason’.

“How infinite in faculties”: yes, we are capable of love and compassion and generosity and self-sacrifice – these are our faculties of heart and soul. This is also what it means to be part of God’s handiwork – to have a ever-renewable wellspring of moral instincts within us. And at this time of the year we are called to return to them, to stir them up again within us, to find the courage to live them, these divine faculties  grafted to our souls.

“How infinite in action how like an angel” – well, this Bard knows how to flatter us, comparing us to angels. Just like the Psalmist does, back in Psalm 8: ‘You have made humankind just a little less than the angels’. Here is poetry to seduce us into thinking the best of ourselves, and our potential: that we are created with an ability to join our thinking, our reasoning, our mental capacities, with our moral imagination, and our ethical faculties, so that they flow, we flow, into action : ‘in action how like an angel’. Like the Psalmist’s religious vision, Shakespeare’s humanism  sees us, reminds us, that we are the messengers of the Divine on earth.

“In apprehension how like a god” – ‘apprehension’ as in ‘powers of understanding’. It’s an amazingly elevated view of humanity from Hamlet’s creator, allowing himself the freedom, as does the Psalmist, to celebrate our special status in God’s creation, as the pinnacle of creation. We are god-like in our powers of perception, in the depth with which we can understand things, in the heights to which we can aspire, in the breadth of what we can achieve. It’s good to be reminded of this. It underlies the whole of the High Holy Days, which remind us over and over again, what we are capable of as human beings – even if we fail at it, over and again, this task of living true to our better selves.

And then, just when our minds and hearts are bursting with these glimpses of who we are and what our potential is, Shakespeare turns Hamlet’s paean of praise for humanity on its head: ‘and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me – nor woman neither...’ The bubble of human glory and potential is burst. Like a kick in the teeth. Because the other side of the story - and it goes back to the mythic opening of Genesis - is that ‘Man’, Adam, Humanity is dust. Adam, ‘The Human’, from Adamah, the ground, the earth: in Hebrew our generic name is always reminding us of how lowly we are. We might be ‘little lower than the angels’, but we are still creatures of flesh and blood who are as fragile as dust, as fleeting as the flowers of the morning that wither in the evening, as transient as shadows, as dreams that fade and die, a cup so easily broken – all the images of this New Year period flood back to remind us of our mortality, and the tentative, tentative hold we have on our earthly lives.

Here’s Shakespeare’s genius. Hamlet’s low mood, his melancholy, comes not because of his awareness of the double-sidedness of life – our god-like nobility in tension with our dust-like transience and insignificance. This is wisdom - to appreciate this double-sidedness. But his mood comes from his inability, his failure, to find in himself any delight in the people around him. ‘And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me – nor woman neither...’ Me, me, me – this is Hamlet, a thoroughly contemporary sensibility. Cut off from his capacity to take pleasure from the world, and to enjoy other people. He’s lost in his own narrow world of feelings. He’s stuck in the gap between his head and his heart. Even though he knows that the people around him are wondrous – he can’t relate to them. There’s no delight to be had in the company of others, men or women, no emotional or physical contact will do it, nothing can breathe life into his relationships.

It is a terrible thing to be stuck in that place. It can happen to any of us. It does happen to all of us, from time to time. We just hope and pray we don’t get too stuck in that place personally. It’s terrible when it happens individually - but more terrible perhaps (and we have seen it over and over in this last 12 months) is when this happens collectively, politically, when there’s a radical failure in one group of people to see the living, breathing humanity and vitality of another group: it’s in the Middle East, all over; in Ukraine and Russia, in Africa, in the ugly recesses of racism here, or in the rest of Europe. The curse of Hamlet – being cut off from a vibrant, living, life-affirming connection to those amongst whom we live. 

The High Holy Days give us the time to re-connect: with others, with our better selves, with our deepest values, with our tradition of reflection and hope and its vision of change, that we can change. Time to remember that – in ways we only glimpse out of the corner of an eye, if at all – the world depends on our changing, our teshuvah, our turning and returning. What’s always stressed at this time of the year is that it is a personal journey we make through these days. And that’s true. But for those of us who choose to do so, they are also days we share with others, with community. And we can take pleasure in that. We are not alone. We have our own unique experience of these days, of course  - but we are not alone.

For those who engage in the mythic narrative of Judaism, we share something over these days, over these weeks. There is great solidarity in this, to journey as a people. If we are feeling we have ‘lost our mirth’, lost our capacity for delight, then we can look around us, look at what a piece of work our neighbour is: filled with hope, like us, and anxiety, like us, filled with nobility, like us, with doubts, like us. We are in this together. I hope it is a good New Year for all of us, Jew and non-Jew alike.
[based on a sermon at the Selichot service Finchley Reform Synagogue, September 13th 2014]