If you’re Jewish and on Facebook or Twitter then I bet there’s one word that’s been showing up on your timeline a lot recently. The word is cringe.
We cringe at That Dreadful Woman From Radlett and The Neurotic One From Edgware in Jewish Mum of the Year. We cringe at Caprice and Stacey Solomon being presented as Jewish spokeswomen. We cringe at Jews in the news or on a cruise.
We cringe when a writer from the Sunday Times claims that it’s essential for Jews to live near a source of “decent matzah”. This writer, by the way, had clearly never eaten matzah in her life, or she has uniquely fine-tuned taste-buds. I doubt she’s ever heard a Jew complain that you can’t get the quality of matzah in Putney that you can in Golders Green.
Jewish cringe has become a syndrome as potent as Catholic guilt. People often explain it as a sensitivity to antisemitism, but it’s not as simple as that. Jewish cringe is about misidentification (She’s got it wrong! Cringe!) about stereotypes — (the shopping cringe, the shouting cringe, the mad rabbi cringe) — and about class.
Take, for example, the documentary about Mancunian Jews, Strictly Kosher. “Who are these ghastly people?” cringed my friends on Facebook — my middle-class London Jewish friends, that is. Meanwhile my husband — Mancunian, working-class — absolutely loved it. He is far less plagued by Jewish cringe than I am, bolstered by a Prestwich upbringing in which most people were Jewish.
I grew up in non-Jewish Hertfordshire, instructed to always be on my best behaviour, as that was the basis on which all Jews everywhere would be judged. Living among non-Jews is commonly believed to be a quick route to assimilation. In fact it often has the opposite effect, turning out Jews who are keen to show the world what wonderful people we are — and who cringe at the suggestion that (whisper it) we’re not all perfect.
Many Jews have experienced huge social mobility in a generation. Some synagogue and youth organisations tried to help the children of working-class immigrants become more English, more middle-class. These clubs changed people’s lives, overwhelmingly for the better. But they may well have encouraged the cringe factor as children became ashamed of their parents.
“It did seem very vulgar,” a friend said about the Jewish Mum nonsense. The friend isn’t Jewish, but some of her grandparents were. Was her comment antisemitism, self-hatred, snobbishness or — cringe, cringe — true?
It is not an accident that my first novel for teenagers had Catholicism as a theme, not Judaism. Later on I found it easier to create a headscarf-wearing Muslim character than a modern Orthodox Jew. I have tried and failed to insert a Jewish character into my work — if only to get an invitation to speak at Jewish Book Week. I haven’t succeeded yet. My inner cringer insists they would have to be paragons of virtue. My outer writer knows that’ll make a terrible book.
Other writers can flaunt their Jewish identity. Howard Jacobson has clearly never experienced a moment of Jewish cringe in his life. Is it because he too comes from magical Prestwich, that fabled suburb where Jews are proud, loud and free?
Perhaps it’s more about the way he enjoys making people feel uncomfortable — poking at facades, disturbing complacency. That’s how I’d like to be, but my courage is, so far, defeated by that cursed cringe.
Jewish cringe is about how we see ourselves. She is loud and obnoxious; I am dignified yet confident. She is neurotic and needy; I am sensitive. She is not a real Jew at all; I reserve the right to define my Jewishness exactly as I want to. Don’t judge me by her behaviour, don’t judge me by stereotypes, if anyone’s going to laugh at Jews it’ll be me. In private. Quietly.
Are we embarrassed about who we are, or how others see us? Is the whole notion of “us” the problem? There’s nothing to cringe about if everyone understands that being Jewish is completely unlike matzah — there are infinite, subtle differences between us — although, like matzah, we all share a certain crunch.