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So am I speaking as simply 'a' Jew or 'the' Jew?

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November 24, 2016 23:26

There's nothing quite like a matzah sandwich to elicit questions from colleagues. Or a circumcision; explaining you're spending the morning watching a newborn undergo minor surgery is quite the minefield.

Being Jewish is often about behaviours that those outside the community (and indeed within) find unusual; not celebrating Christmas, fasting for 25-hour stretches, or taking annual leave for festivals few have heard of.

Having attended a non-religious school, arrived late for Fresher's Week because of Rosh Hashanah, and worked with colleagues of all backgrounds, I'm used to being quizzed on these customs and traditions. It's hardly surprising; Britain is becoming increasingly secular, with the 2011 census showing a drop from 72 per cent to 59 per cent of people declaring themselves to be Christian. Being religious sets you apart.

And I'm content to talk about it. Contrary to the recent Equality and Human Rights Commission finding that some religious people feel pressure to keep their beliefs hidden, as a relatively observant Jew, I have never felt uncomfortable being vocal about my faith.

But the thing is, it's my faith. Mine. My way of doing things, my type of Judaism. A Judaism distinct from some of my family, from friends, and certainly from the peyot-wearing Jew pictured alongside articles about antisemitism, or the dreadlocked Jew hiking in Nepal, or Jews from New York, Paris or Sydney.

I am "a" Jew, and I know my answers, but not necessarily "the" answers. We are a community of many colours, similar and yet so very different. Crucially, we are one where commitment is not necessarily quantifiable in terms of observance, where we all do Judaism in our own way.

Yet, over the next few days, when I answer the inevitable questions about matzah, will it be as "a" Jew, or as "the" Jew? When I am quizzed on the rules, am I speaking for myself, or collectively for all Jews? Am I ever not a spokesperson for my community?

On Israel, perhaps not. However misguided, critics and advocates alike are prone to take the sentiment of the individual as representative, especially if it reinforces preconceived views. My personal tweet about Netanyahu will invariably be taken by some as proof of ''the'' Jewish perspective.

But is the same true for Judaism, where questions are often borne out of curiosity? Or can I successfully convey those shades of grey, communicate that while I have plenty in common with other Jews, I am not necessarily explaining on their behalf? Does it matter?

To an extent, I think the distinction does matter. For one, we are a diverse community - financially, politically, religiously - and I'd like to make that clear.

Equally, I can speak honestly for what I do, but not always for what all Jews do, or why, and I hardly want to add to the plethora of misinformation out there. I want my audience to know my answer is not necessarily the definitive answer. By the same token, I don't want to have to answer for my community. On certain issues, like the imbalance between men and women, I want to speak only as ''a'' Jew. Unfortunately, I'm unconvinced that is possible. Of course, I can caveat my comments to make it clear, but the reality is that, across all walks of life, we anoint spokespeople. We seek the feminist outlook, the gay view, the black perspective, despite no group being homogeneous. Politicians meet "an immigrant" or "a working mum" and use the encounter to demonstrate a universal truth.

We talk in collectives - the BBC, the Government, the rich - because we can't easily grasp all the subtleties. Can we really expect those who ask about Jewish life to do so?

Give me several hours, and perhaps I can go into the minutiae. But mostly, my clumsy explanation about why I fast on Yom Kippur, or can't go for office drinks on a Friday night, will have to suffice, and will probably be taken as representative.

Ultimately, we are fortunate to live in a country where most questions come from curiosity, not hostility. So perhaps it's about finding the balance; working out when to accept I am answering as the Jew, and choosing when it really matters to underscore that my view is only that of a Jew.

November 24, 2016 23:26

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