Racism: a personal journey

I hate watching, even knowing, the news. I hate it. Yet I know it’s vital to keep informed – to understand what is happening so I can understand how to change what is happening. I sit in the silence of my one room apartment, my little boy asleep on the mattress on the floor, and I watch as my phone screen is brought to life with racist rage and rage incited by racism. I watch as violence begets violence and people judge each other purely on the colour of their skin.

And I think, how strange, how unhappy people are.

I have been living in this country for three months. In that time, my skin has turned from pale white to deep bronze. I’m lucky. No one where I live cares about the colour of my skin. Or my roots.

But where I used to live, now that’s a different story.

Ever since our Lubavitch Rebbetzen told me I couldn’t go to the funeral of one of my closest friends (she died of cancer, aged 14) because it was a Christian cremation, I’ve been running away from Judaism. True, there were times I tried again (my parents were desperate for me to meet a nice Jewish doctor, of course) but time and time again I was disappointed.

Judaism in Birmingham, England, where I grew up, consisted of the following:

  1. What you cannot eat
  2. What you cannot do
  3. Where you cannot go
  4. At my non-Jewish primary school – my parents took me away from the only Jewish one as the education there was focused on Jewish studies to the detriment of all else, apparently – I nearly died when I found out I had eaten a prawn cocktail flavoured crisp. I thought I would be punished by God.
  5. At my non-Jewish secondary school, I was good at hockey and drama. To be on the team and in the group required committed attendance on Shabbat.
  6. When we were in the sixth form, my friends went out every Friday evening. They then spent half the week discussing their night out.

My non-Jewish friends in Birmingham, as lovely as they were (and still are) sustained a running joke about me ‘blowing the chauffeur’ on Rosh Hashana. I used to laugh along with them, but when alone, I never laughed.

I felt I had six heads with my non-Jewish friends, and six heads in my small traditional/orthodox Jewish community which understood me about as much as a vegetarian understands a carvery…

When I moved to London, I thought I might find the right community for me, where I would be accepted and where I would feel it was okay to be me: vegetarian verging on vegan but not quite getting there (I finally have!), feminist, hair dyed all sorts of colours, sporty, a lover of literature, and most significantly, someone who questioned the fundamentally sexist and homophobic nature of traditional orthodox Judaism.

I didn’t have much chance, really, did I?

The men I met all wanted to get married, but not to me. I was too quirky. Too outspoken. Too, well, weird, I suppose. I didn’t even make it past the first date.

It got worse as I got older. I drifted further and further away from my Jewish roots. I even got tattoos. Had a child out of wedlock. Total ostracization, ‘Scarlet Letter’ style.

I thought, because of my pale skin, my very un-Jewish nose, my not brown eyes, my slim figure, my essentially totally un-Jewish look (people often told me: you don’t look Jewish, whatever the hell looking Jewish is) I could merge skilfully and subtly into English society, be a quirky English rose. It worked, for a while, with my very proper and nice Catholic boyfriend, until I freaked out. I realised he wanted to marry me. I dumped him.

His parting words? “Thank you for teaching me about Judaism.”

Really???

Then there was the boyfriend who actually lied and told me he was Jewish, just to get me to stay with him. It worked, until I found out. That wasn’t pretty.

What then has it been my whole life calling me back, again and again, to a religion I felt was all about restrictions and limitations? Barriers, locked doors, isolation and rejection?

And I watch all these videos about racism, about them and us, about hatred and ignorance, and I know it’s my utter need: to have the basic human right to feel accepted and loved by the people around us, by our society.

Is a skin colour really a barrier to that? Is a religion?

Two final nails fixed the coffin of England securely shut. At my son’s nursery, he was being taught to celebrate Christmas without any choice. They didn’t even know what Chanukah was. This at an apparently ‘Ofsted Outstanding’ nursery. And where I was teaching, the headmaster stood at the front of assembly once every six weeks and bellowed at the whole school to sing their hearts out with the hymn ‘Jerusalem’.

One day in England I was having a conversation with one of my very good non-Jewish friends; she had always made a total effort to get to know me –  a rare someone with whom I didn’t have to hide a part of myself even if I knew she couldn’t understand everything I shared. We were talking about our boys. I told her I couldn’t continue to watch my son grow up without knowledge of his heritage or of our traditions, but at the same time I wanted his Judaism to be an invisible entity, enriching his life, not restricting or isolating him. I said to her we might live in Israel. And then I suddenly just knew: we were going to live in Israel.

Last summer, when I came to Israel to research where we would live, I was introduced to a community unbelievably close to my heart. I don’t know how to describe it to Jews and non-Jews alike in England. How do you tell people about the time you were running and someone was burning Chametz on the pavement like it was the most natural thing in the world? Where saying Shabbat Shalom or Chag Sameach is a natural part of the language – you even say it to cold callers? Where there are plenty of vegetarian Jews, vegan Jews, Jews with tattoos, gay couples, lesbian couples, where some of the most learned people are the women and where no one even notices if it is a man or a woman reading from the Torah? Where opportunities are endless and the flowers are the brightest I have ever seen in my life.

No barriers; no doors. Only a wondrous, eternal garden.

Shabbat, and festivals here are about singing, dancing, eating, and loving each other.

I’ve even found a Jewish boyfriend who ‘gets’ me. Unbelievable, but true.

So how does this link with the news, with the racism: my own personal journey – where does it fit in?

I think with the word ‘hope’. I think with the knowledge if you fight for something for long enough, if you believe in what is right for long enough, you will find it.

Once I believed bringing a child into this evil, racist, hateful world would be a terrible, terrible thing. Then my mum and dad told me: bring children into the world and teach them to make it less evil.

I am bringing up my child here to be a part of this community, to feel accepted, to love and be loved for who, not what, he is, in the hope he will take this love and acceptance with him and offer it to a world desperately in need of it.

About the Author
Shoshana Lavan is a published author, high school teacher of English Literature and Language, teacher of English as a foreign language and most importantly, a very proud mother of her gorgeous toddler. She has recently made Aliyah, is an aspiring peace activist and a committed vegan. A keen runner, she is loving the mountains and glorious sunshine in this wonderful country.
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