I did not expect my book to help people overcome shame

One thing about shame, of course, is that it’s closely related to fear

April 15, 2021 11:56

So I’ve had three main reactions to my book, Jews Don’t Count — not counting (see what I did there) those whose opinions were formed without reading it, which would include, as far as I can make out, the seven Jews who still think that Jeremy Corbyn was smeared by Zionist shills, and will continue to shout about that until they die, Oliver Shalom (I think that’s how you spell his name).

Two of those main reactions are: progressive non-Jews saying, “oh right, I see what all the fuss was about now!” and Jews saying, “nice that’s someone said all this stuff in a bite-size package, I’ll buy 10 copies for my progressive non-Jewish friends so that they can see what all the fuss was about now”. Those two I was vaguely expecting. The third I was not. Which is, as one woman tweeted me: “Your book touched upon the feelings I have had all my life about being a Jew but haven’t been able to articulate. That of shame and embarrassment and wanting to hide my Jewishness under the carpet. It all makes sense now.”

I’ve been sent a lot of these expressions of Jewish shame, or at least, thinking of it more positively, expressions from those who have felt Jewish shame but are now, at last, as a result of a few hours of therapy provided for under four quid on Kindle (what? I’m going to have a column in the JC and not plug?), throwing open the heavy doors of their locked-down-for-their-whole-life kosher closet. This has been fascinating for me as one thing I have never felt is shame about being Jewish. Those who have seen my stand-up shows may comment, correctly, that I have never felt any shame about anything, but that’s beside the point.

One thing about shame, of course, is that it’s closely related to fear. The Friday Night Dinner writer, Robert Popper, also reacting to the book on Twitter, wrote in a thread about how his grandma always said to him, “Never tell anyone you’re Jewish” — but the key qualifier was that he called her his “Holocaust-surviving grandma.” It’s hard to disentangle whether the instinct not to reveal your Jewishness comes from a desire to assimilate, or an anxiety that this revelation may one day lead to violence against you: possibly, it’s always both. Despite having a mother who was born in Nazi Germany, I was never told to hide being Jewish (anyone who has seen my show about Sarah Baddiel will know she had no shame too: it’s a genetic inheritance). My early life, in fact, was more or less 100 percent Jewish. I went to a Jewish primary school, a Jewish youth group, and all my parents friends were Jewish: I mean, I basically didn’t meet a non-Jew until I was 12.

To paraphrase the title of the old Broadway show, when you have an upbringing like that, the whole world is Jewish. I get that for some people the shock of realising, when they eventually do, that the whole world isn’t Jewish might make them withdraw. I think for me however the damage was already done. Meaning: I just assumed early on — incorrectly — that Jew was the norm, and non-Jew the abnormal, and I think that’s stuck with me.

But not all the shame-based reactions to my book have come from older people with Holocaust-survivor immediate ancestors. One, from a 19 year old friend of my niece, and sent to me privately, spoke of something else: of growing up and being surrounded by what he describes as “fellow progressives” who, he has always sensed would not, were he to speak out about antisemitism and/or Jewish identity, “think of my feelings as legitimate.” In other words, for the young woke Jew, there is a feeling of shame that comes with assuming that his non-Jewish peers will not rank his issues, as a member of an ethnic minority, as highly as all the others in their unceasing fight for social justice. So it’s better to shut up about them. To put it more straightforwardly, as I do in the book, and as he repeated in his message, being Jewish, for him in his generation, isn’t cool.

He did though end the message, like the older lady tweeting above, and like Robert Popper, by saying, effectively — and to coin a phrase — enough is enough. He’d read, he’d absorbed, and from now on, he intended to be less inhibited, and to speak out more often against casual antisemitism. As I say, this was not a reaction I expected, and Jews Don’t Count is not in any way, a self-help manual, but if one of its unintended consequences is to free a few more people from the apparently widespread feeling of Jewish shame, then — OK, it’s the JC, I think I can say this — skoyach to the book for that.

April 15, 2021 11:56

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