Thursday, 11 April 2013

Just don't ask me to make an exhibition of myself

I’M sure it’s nothing like real fame, but one of the strange side-effects of having your name and picture printed every week at the top of a page like this one is that total strangers occasionally address you as if they know you.
The nicest instances of this, sadly rare, are those times when people stop you to tell you how much they agree with something you’ve written. Or even (rarer) that they disagreed.
It was a pleasant surprise the other day to be addressed by name by an Ipswich Town legend I’d often seen play but never met.

The strangest occasion of this kind happened many years ago when I was working as a football writer in the North.
A woman I didn’t know from Eve stopped me in the street while I was out shopping. Calling me by name, she proceeded to start grilling me, not about football – which I was reasonably used to – but about Judaism.

I wonder if this is a familiar experience among those who, presumably like me, look vaguely Jewish.
Now it so happens that I’m not actually Jewish. Or, to bend the words of an old joke, I’m not a Jew, just a little Jew-ish.

I’m Jewish enough that if I’d been unlucky enough to be born under the racist laws of Hitler’s Germany I almost certainly wouldn’t have survived.
On the other hand I’m not Jewish enough for the racist law of modern Israel to accept me as a citizen. I couldn’t set up home in Tel Aviv even if I wanted to (though my father could have done).

Part of the confusion – and it’s an old, complicated one – is between Jewishness as race (whatever that really means) and Judaism as religion.
As far as I can discover, the last religious Jew among my ancestors was five generations back, and probably died about 150 years ago. For all I know (and I don’t) I may be as closely related to Buddhists, Baptists, Quakers, spiritualists and worshippers of the sun god Ra.

Nevertheless, either because of my appearance or my (actually Cornish) surname, this unknown woman expected me to answer her queries about the detail of various arcane rituals. I’d have had more chance if she’d asked me about sub-atomic physics.
I was reminded of this curious encounter by news of the exhibition currently being staged at Berlin’s Jewish Museum.

I visited the museum a few months ago and found it oddly, deeply, disturbingly disappointing.
Of course the roomfuls of Holocaust memorabilia, letters, photos, film clips were moving. How could a human being fail to be moved, to the verge of physical sickness, by the details of genocide?

But the attempt to build a picture of German Jewish life and history before the catastrophe were oddly distancing and shallow.
It was as if the whole museum was dedicated not to a lost culture but to the glory of its architect, the American Daniel Libeskind.

That, and to a justification of the founding and policies of the state of Israel.
The founding I have some sympathy with, and find historically fascinating, though I think it was a mistake. The policies – towards the Palestinians and towards the Yiddish language, both which Israel has tried to expunge – are grotesque. Unjustifiable.

But what of the new exhibition?
Titled  “The Whole Truth … everything you always wanted to know about Jews” it seems designed to objectify Jewish people in what you might assume was an anti-Semitic way.

Of the “difficult questions” it apparently sets out to answer, the first is “How do you recognise a Jew?”
If the museum website is anything to go by, the answer would seem to be “By his hat”. Which isn’t too much more sophisticated than “By his yellow star”.

But if that’s shallow and ill thought-out, how about the central area of the show?
“Jews in a Showcase” is, if nothing else, accurately titled – though “Making an exhibition of ourselves” might have conveyed it even better.

Here a succession of “ordinary Jews” take turns to sit in a glass case, looking just like the ordinary people they are, and wait to answer whatever questions the curious visitor may fire at them.
What rituals mark the Feast of the Passover? – Pass.

Can you eat anything you like on the Sabbath, as long as it isn’t pork? – I believe, for a believer, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
What makes a Jew a Jew? – It’s really complicated.

Are Jews any different from other people? – Not really, no.
Can one individual, whoever they are, really speak authoritatively for a whole people? – Er, no.

Now, should you happen to bump into me in the street and feel like talking, how about asking me a football question? I might have a chance of answering that sensibly.

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