Studying English has a strange effect on people.
Recently, one of my lecturers touched on a poem called Behaving like a Jew by Gerald Stern. If you have time, read it, because it’s strange and beautiful and it’s got all these allusions that you’ll feel really clever for having spotted, if you’re into that, but I’ll write a brief summary for those that aren’t.
Basically, Stern is driving along a country road, where he sees a possum that’s been killed by a car. Instead of passing by, Stern decides to “behave like a Jew” by making himself morally responsible for disposing of, and grieving for, the possum.
Now, obviously I’m too #woke (as the kids say) to sign up completely to Stern’s ideas of Jewish exceptionalism, but over the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking about this poem, about behaving like a Jew, about holding yourself morally responsible for things which, objectively, aren’t your business.
Take, for example, recent events in Gaza. I know it’s only antisemites who want to make Jews morally responsible for everything Israel does, but somehow I still feel like this is my business.
This is partly a defence mechanism - most of the people I’m close enough to to talk politics with know my religion, so it’s in my interests to have an answer prepared for the questions I know are coming.
But it also, strangely, feels bound up in my identity. Like being unable to wax eloquent about The West Bank would be as much a betrayal of Jewish culture as not knowing what gefilte fish is.
Or take the recent storm over antisemitism in the Labour Party. This is a little different from my previous example because, as the only Jewish member of my local Labour party, this very much feels like my fight.
But when people in my local party - most of them older, and much more experienced in anti-racist politics than me- ask for my opinions on how to deal with antisemitism like I’m some kind of oracle rather than a 21-year-old student who gets half his political opinions from Twitter threads, it’s hard not to feel a little strange.
It makes sense, I guess. Because of our tumultuous history, being Jewish means having political baggage attatched to everything you do. As an egotistical politics geek who loves the sound of his own voice, this can be gratifying. But I also just got a terrible mark for an essay because I got the name of the main character in the poem I was writing about wrong, so asking me to have the answers to institutionalised leftist antisemitism, or a roadmap for peace in the Middle East feels like a little bit of a stretch.
That said, I don’t really resent any of this. There are worse things in the world than being expected to have an opinion on things, and if it forces me to make myself useful then so much the better. It’s all part of what comes from behaving like a Jew.
Jamie Rodney is one of the JC's regular student bloggers for 2017-18. He is studying English at St Andrews University