Zoe Strimpel

Enough already with the scones and bunting

Britain is a wonderful place for Jews live but my enthusiasm for the royals is rather limited

May 04, 2023 13:18

Over the past few years, the royals have invited numerous shows of Great British Britishness. There was the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee last summer, followed by the sad event a few months later of her death — a spectacular state occasion — and the proclamation of Charles. As well as paying attention to the genuinely fascinating show of ancient ritual, I attended Big Jubilee street parties, watched the entire funeral and procession from Westminster Abbey to Windsor, queued to see the Queen lying in state — a backbreaking but fun enterprise of 14 hours — and patiently snaked my way through the floral tributes that jammed Green Park and St James’s.

Now, as we face the coronation of King Charles, I confess I feel a touch weary, as though the last year has exhausted my stock of “I’m proudly British, too” performativity and left something a bit more real, but harder to externalise, in its place, which I have identified as a mix of boredom, impatience, and alienation.

Over the last week, the feeling that all this hoopla has nothing to do with me and my kind (and never has really) has intensified, casting a pall over my enthusiasm for scones and sandwiches under chilly skies. I’m actually flying to Taiwan on Saturday night on a Taiwanese government-sponsored trip and while I’d normally be agonising over missing the second day of coronation weekend, I feel very little FOMO.

Boiled down: bunting is nice, but surely for a Jew it’s not that nice, and it gets old pretty quickly.

Perhaps I am feeling a heightened sense of frustration with it all because there is only so much village fête-style merriment a cosmopolitan type like me can cope with — and let’s face it, the kind of conversation you have over the sponge cakes and watery Pimm’s with people there simply because they live near you isn’t necessarily the most scintillating. Yes, I am something of a grinch when it comes to the British hyper-local (the European equivalent is more suggestive of good wine, good cheese and intrigue).

My feelings of nonplussedness must also relate to having recently returned from immersion in Jewish culture in Israel. In Tel Aviv I always have a sense of belonging, simply because there is so much one doesn’t have to explain about past or present — I can eat bacon and pork belly there next to a shul with the grandchildren of survivors and the early architects of the state. No bunting required to feel a merry sense of belonging.

My family and I spent Passover in Jerusalem, where we visited my religious brother. It was a holiday in which even a bit of parsley carried crucial symbolism relating to life, death, exodus, moral courage, human emotion, triumph in adversity and, of course, identity. Compared to teacakes and small talk, a whole city shutting down and waking back up without any bread to be seen feels a bit more substantive, even though, like the Union Jack napkins and coronation-themed quiche, it’s got little to do with how I live my life.

But the real reason I will only ever feel like a finger-tapping outsider when Britain gets into “Big Lunch” mode is simpler. While I have a British passport and great respect for the nation, I don’t belong to it in the way that the Hermione Lowton-Moleses and Lucy Wilton-Smiths and Jack Bower-Whites and so on do. Most Jews have a story of unbelonging, of forcible wrench, in their family histories, but for me it feels more recent than for many. I can think of many British Jews who seem totally British, down to the football teams they support, as well as fully and comfortably Jewish. People whose families came to Britain long before mine did, often as a result of early 20th century persecution in Poland and Russia, and settled in Jewish areas and practised Jewish trades.

But if you’re the grandchild of assimilated European Jews, the story looks a bit different. You live in a perpetual identity crisis in a country that took in your fleeing relations 80 years ago and let them rebuild their lives; you lack the generational history required to feel truly British or American or whatever.

My Berlin-born grandfather used to call my brother’s Torah scholarship “peasant wisdom”. These were not believers. So without a religious community to fall back on, we remained different, even among our own.

I am happy in many settings: arch-English, Catholic, religious and reform Jewish, Hindu, urban, rural, eating pork or eating matzos. I’ve even taken the sacrament out of curiosity. But when it comes to performing not just allegiance but belonging to an ancient, formerly Jew-expelling Anglo-Saxon Christian island with a German royal family, my well of enthusiasm turns out to be shallower than I thought.

For every bit of bunting and pork pie unveiled this weekend in honour of the coronation, I say: “enjoy”. I am glad we have the monarchy and know how lucky we are to live in Britain. But I’ll feel no more remote watching the weekend’s festivities in a Taipei hotel room than I would on a cake and ale-filled street in Blighty.

May 04, 2023 13:18

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