My friend Sasha and I shared a house when we were doing our master’s degrees, and when she discovered my abject poverty we reached a deal: she bought the food (I had no money) and I did the cooking (she had never learned). We remained friends for 26 years — but things became awkward when I started going to shul.
There was an uncomfortable incident in 2005, when Israel withdrew from Gaza. The BBC presenter on the evening news spoke about ‘fanatical right-wing extremists’ while showing a Jewish woman being literally dragged out of her home in Gaza — a woman crying her heart out in the deepest distress and affliction as she lost her beloved home — the home in which she had raised her children.
‘I don’t think she looks like a fanatical extremist’, I commented mildly. ‘I think she looks like a woman whose heart is breaking’.
My friend’s husband erupted in fury. ‘She had NO RIGHT to be there in the first place’, he almost shouted. His face was distorted with rage. ‘I feel NO SYMPATHY for her WHATSOEVER.’ I’m not sure where he felt she ought to be instead, but he clearly didn’t care whether she lived or died.
I wondered how someone can argue that ethnic cleansing is wrong in principle, but right when it is Jews being ethnically cleansed. I wondered at his complete inability to empathise with a woman in floods of tears and clearly in the most terrible pain. I wondered at my friend’s silence in the light of her husband’s vitriolic anger. And I dropped the subject.
It was years later that I started attending shul, a process which I describe in my blog ‘On becoming un-assimilated’. I had been feeling terribly isolated. When I told Sasha about this deeply personal step, she burst out laughing and said, ‘But you’re no more Jewish than I am!’ It was like a slap in the face, so vicious that my face is still stinging even now.
Now, it’s not as if Sasha didn’t know that I’m Jewish, but when I met her I didn’t attend shul, so perhaps I didn’t seem too ‘different’. She probably didn’t know, or didn’t remember me mentioning my thoughts on applying to a yeshiva when I was younger. Maybe I never mentioned a seder or a bat mitzvah, or my informal Jewish Society at University. To Sasha I suppose the Shoah was a terrible event that occurred in the distant and unconnected past; I guess, looking back, that I never conveyed to her the way that it lives inside of all of us. It’s hard to explain that I don’t remember learning about the Shoah, because it feels like I’ve always known. It’s hard to explain to a Gentile what it feels like to grow up knowing, in the back of your mind, that being a little girl in an ordinary house in an ordinary neighbourhood does not mean you are ‘safe’. It does not protect you from genocidal antipathy, and there is the knowledge somehow embedded in Jewish children that one day we can be small girls with a bicycle, friends and piano lessons after school, and the next we can be rounded up and incarcerated in a concentration camp where we will die of cold or typhus or Zyklon B.
I understand now what Sasha really meant. She and her husband believe in multi-culturalism– but only so long as those of us who are part of those ‘different’ cultures reject our religion, traditions, history, culture, relatives, representatives and for Jews, of course, Israel. Foreign people are delightful, provided their foreignness is confined to wearing colourful ethnic clothing and cooking spicy food that doesn’t involve anything too unusual.
The next time I saw Sasha she asked me a bit about shul, and why I chose to go. It was clearly a barrier between us that was, to her, almost insurmountable. Her questioning was not an expression of kindly interest, although I couldn’t quite place what it was about it that made me uneasy. I don’t think I was able to articulate my answer very well, but perhaps I can explain it better now.
A few years ago there was a meme going round, which showed a pair of windows. One window looked out on a splendid and colourful Fantasia of a scene, filled with trees and birds and sunlight. The other was boarded up, and offered a vista of cobwebs and spiders and darkness. The meme labelled the colourful side ‘atheism’ and the boarded up and blinded window ‘religion’. To me– and to many other people who responded to this picture– it was the other way round. My faith ADDS to the beauty of the world; it’s the glimmer of light that you catch out of the corner of your eye. It’s that added something that is so hard to define. When people tell me that it is ugly, blind superstition, it’s as if they are suggesting I should pull the wings off butterflies. And yet, it is so often atheists who talk about the importance of tolerance. I don’t understand why they feel the need to stamp out my feeble glimmer of faith, this little spark which to me is of profound beauty, and which affords such joy. When I go to shul I find that together, with my people all around me together, we can blow this little spark of mine into a flame.
I have heard many people say that they will not take their children to church or shul, but that their kids can ‘make up their own minds when they’re older’. What that means is this: their child gets to miss out on walking into a familiar building with its familiar smells of candles or challah or the mildew of a building that has stood on the spot for hundreds of years. Their child gets to miss out on all the friendly greetings– Shabbat Shalom! Gut Shabbos! They get to miss the weekly, kind attention of familiar adults, and the cheerful children’s room full of books and crayons; they get to miss out on learning Hebrew and of standing up before the congregation to do a reading, and all the praise of the community when they do so. They miss the honour of dressing the torah scrolls. They miss the ceremony of being welcomed into the community with a communion or a bar mitzvah. They miss out on learning about God, of perhaps feeling close to God; they miss out on the stories, the discussions and the moral authority of a religion that is thousands of years old, and they miss hearing the ancient parables that teach us how to be good, and kind, and honourable– and how to recover ourselves when we have been stupid and selfish. They miss the sense of belonging not just to a living community but to generations of that community, going back, in our case, over 3000 years.
I went to see Sasha one last time. We were all sitting around the table– Sasha and her husband and her brother and her kids and me– and she started talking about how she had been in London and saw a lot of Orthodox Jews, and how miserable and downtrodden the women look, and how they have too many children, and how awful their lives must be because Orthodox Judaism is so backwards. I was too surprised to discuss the matter, but I spent the drive home in a state of shock. Once again, I felt like I’d been slapped. Partly it was the look on her face; the barely concealed revulsion and distaste. When I told my husband the story, he said dryly, ‘so you haven’t seen her for nearly a year, and when you do, she has to bash the Jews.’
I won’t be visiting her again.
Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote of lost love:
‘Tis not love’s going hurts my days,
But that it went in little ways.’
The same can be said of friendship.