Keren David

We Jews aren't all male, pale, hairy and holy

It's time to improve Jewish representation in the media and culture - and celebrate our diverse communities


Portrait Of Multi-Generation Family Group On Winter Beach Vacation

January 28, 2021 15:56

Put the word ‘Jewish’ into a Google images search and what do you see? A sea of beards, of course, mostly attached to Charedi gentlemen, although one sprouts on the chin of Seth Rogen. It’s clear that in the eyes of the world’s largest search engine Jewish almost always means male, pale, hairy and holy.

This was the starting point for an online panel discussion that I took part in this week. We called it Beyond the Beard: Rethinking Jewish Representation, a free-flowing conversation about the way that Jews are perceived in culture and media and society.

My fellow panellists were motivational speaker Jodeci Joseph, and children’s author and teacher Emma Shevah, and we were ably chaired by journalist Arielle Tchiprout. We were a great deal more diverse than that Google page. For a start, three of us are women and only one of us has a beard. None of us started out in the north–west London bubble. Jodeci spoke about his experiences as someone who is mixed race, who only discovered that he is Jewish when he was 11, and the prejudices he has faced both within the Jewish community — where sometimes people refuse to believe he can be Jewish — and outside: “Someone asked me if I have horns.”

Emma grew up outside the Jewish community, she is half Thai and half Irish, converting to Orthodox Judaism as an adult when she married an Israeli Sephardi man. She brought her four children up in the Modern Orthodox community in London and now lives in Brighton. Arielle is half Israeli, from Ealing, and suffered antisemitism at her Church of England school. I grew up as a countryside Jew, from an Orthodox family, and have never quite settled in any one flavour of Judaism.Our backgrounds are different, but we agreed on a great deal.

We hardly saw Jews in culture or the media when we were growing up, and when we did the Jews we saw were nothing like us, being either shifty crooks, sad Shoah victims or spoiled, secular and American. British offerings tended to be carefully stripped of their Jewish content and played for laughs (looking at you, Friday Night Dinner).

Any narrative about Judaism — books, television or film — is almost always negative. The popular, acceptable narrative is that of a flight from Orthodoxy towards a secular life (looking at you, Unorthodox), but it is much rarer to see an account of a progression towards any kind of Jewish observance, and Progressive Judaism is almost entirely overlooked.

Emma and Arielle were eloquent on the lack of Sephardi representation in mainstream culture. Wildly popular restaurants are not enough. If you narrow Jewish representation to the Ashkenazi viewpoint, then you miss out huge chunks of Jewish life and history. How can you understand Israel if you don’t know about the Jewish experience in Africa and the Middle East?

Our audience included writers, editors, librarians and teachers and many others. One of the very few advantages of lockdown has been the chance to hold events like this online. I think that if we’d had to schlep out to a bookshop on an icy Monday evening we’d have got maybe 20 people. Online, we attracted 100.

How can things change? We wanted to see more and better Jewish representation. More diversity. More visibility. Here, I think the JC has a role to play. As features editor I’ve made it a personal mission to reflect our community’s diversity. Sadly, it did not surprise me when Jodeci described the prejudice he’d faced within the community. I’d heard the same ignorant view when a woman rang to complain that I used a dark-skinned model in a feature about hats for shul, “because she can’t possibly be Jewish.”

Is it OK for non-Jewish authors to write about Jewish subjects and create Jewish characters, we were asked. Well, yes and no. Yes — no one should feel that any topic is forbidden to them. We need allies, we need empathy, there are some wonderful books by non-Jews out there, as well as the ones which — to put it kindly — miss the point (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I’m looking very intently at you). But when publishers commission Jewish books from non-Jews, and tell Jewish writers that their books are ‘too Jewish’ — yes, it happens — then we have a problem.

British Jews have, historically, kept out heads down. Our history includes a massacre, expulsion, a vicious campaign against immigration (culminating in the Aliens Act of 1905) and home grown fascism from Moseley’s Blackshirts. But now, we must come out of the shadows. And social media can be the way to go about it. Since lockdown began I’ve been making challah every Friday , and I post a picture on Instagram. Every night of Chanukah, I shared my candlelight. It is time to tell the world what it is to be Jewish — in all our glorious, wonderful, different ways.


Keren David’s new YA book What We’re Scared Of is published by Scholastic UK



January 28, 2021 15:56

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