It was screenwriter Nora Ephron’s mother Phoebe who famously said, “everything is copy” and, in an honest and hard-hitting radio programme next week, the Sunday Times writer Katie Glass proves that to be true.
She’s often mined her own life for feature stories but this time, in And The Good News Is, You’re Jewish, she takes on a difficult exploration of her own identity.
The springboard for this quest was the death of her father, Edinburgh-born Cyril Glass. “I’d always known that he was Jewish but whenever I would ask him he would say he wasn’t interested in discussing it; and when I asked my mother, she said it went through the maternal line, and so I wasn’t Jewish”.
Her father had “no Jewish paraphernalia, not a kippah, not a menorah”, so it came as a huge shock to be contacted by a rabbi from the West End Great Synagogue, telling her about the funeral arrangements. Glass, who had seen her father just before his death, had had no idea that he intended to have a Jewish funeral. She went through the process “knowing nothing, I didn’t know about the kaddish or my father’s Hebrew name. It was a complete shock, and I also thought, because we had conversations about many things, that it was sad that he hadn’t been ready to talk about this with me”.
But she was conscious that her father, who was 90 when he died in 2010, might have come from a generation who found it difficult to talk about being Jewish.
For Katie and one of her brothers, the immediate response was curiosity. At Sussex University at the time of Cyril Glass’s death, the siblings went first to a Chanukah event and then took a trip to Israel. “That had never occurred to me, that Israel was part of who I was. People kept asking me if I was Jewish and I would say no, and they would laugh and say, of course you are, look at you — and I would see people who looked like me, and I would wonder”.
It took a long time before she was able to explore her Jewish background — really only in the last six months. At first, she approached it as just another feature to write — “where I am ignorant and ask a lot of questions” but, gradually, she says, “I hadn’t factored in that it would be about where I belong. And I didn’t realise how much the subject would be calling to me”.
Glass began with buying Jewish food and taking a DNA test, discovering herself to be “49.8 per cent Ashkenazi Jewish”. But then her research took a more serious turn with the help of Harvey Kaplan and the Scottish Jewish Archives, discovering her grandmother’s death certificate, her grandparents’ ketubah and her great-grandparents’ naturalisation papers. There was even a picture of her grandmother’s grave.
Then she sought help and advice from three rabbis — the United Synagogue’s Harvey Belovski and Reform’s Laura Janner-Klausner and its emeritus rabbi, Tony Bayfield. Add to that “a deep dive” into Jewish culture and a history class at JW3, and her fast-track immersion into Jewish identity was adding pace.
She’s not ready to describe herself as Jewish — though she is looking into conversion. “At times, it has been a shameful experience, I was embarrassed at what I did not know. It’s been very important to me not to offend, and not claim to be something that I’m not — but I have been overwhelmed with how welcoming people have been. I feel as though I have gained a huge family.”
BBC Radio 4’s ‘And The Good News Is You’re Jewish’ airs on Tuesday March 17 at 11 am and is then available on BBC Sounds.