Elisa Bray

‘What are you?’ they asked. ‘British or Jewish?’

The worst thing about marrying out is the awkward conversations that you cannot avoid

January 25, 2024 15:01

My first meeting with my in-laws is still memorable, almost 20 years later, for two reasons. For one thing, my father-in-law introduced me to his telescope, which, cast in the direction of Hampshire’s clear and starry sky, was pretty spectacular by comparison to our usual polluted London view. But also because he asked me how Jewish I am. What percentage, to be precise. I don’t think I had an answer. After all, I am just… Jewish.

“He’s just interested in genealogy,” my husband sweetly pointed out when I asked the reason behind such a question.

However, the feeling of otherness that exchange evoked reminded me of being stuck in the back of a Yorkshire taxi as a 19-year-old student, the driver persisting in his line of questioning: “But where are you really from? You don’t look British…”

That feeling of unease around my extended family has returned multiple times since and has, for me, proved the peril of intermarriage.

We bring up our three children Jewish. We surround ourselves with the colours and traditions of my roots as well as my atheist husband’s and our united British heritages.

But I was the first Jew my open-hearted husband had met, and perhaps the first his parents had met, too.

And when unwittingly insensitive comments came around about Poles transforming their hometown with their grocery shops and their language, I felt my Polish roots indignantly declaring themselves, out of nowhere. But what percentage Polish am I?

Then there was the time when my two-year-old proudly counted his footsteps down every stair at my in-laws’ house, in the cute toddler language that only parents can understand: “Five, shix, hanhan…”

“Is that Jewish?” asked one elderly aunt.

The key to many a good — or smooth, at least — relationship with those holding different views from your own, I have learnt, is to avoid conversations about topics known to be a source of disagreement: politics, religion. I’m becoming adept at swerving my way out of these, with polite-but-firm shutdowns.

There was, however, one conversation that somehow sucked me in, and only because it was evening, and I was sleepily sat at the dining table with a cup of tea: the hypocrisy of religion.

It is, perhaps, difficult for anyone who’s not of the faith to understand the possibility of being wholly culturally Jewish – embracing the festivals, simchas, the food and the community, yet simultaneously picking and choosing from the rest of the customs – without them thinking you are not Jewish at all.

When the conversation turned to the insanity of having a God, and that all the religions were ultimately the same, and pointless, I pointed out that you can feel very much a part of Judaism for all kinds of reasons meaningful to yourself, reasons that don’t necessarily involve a God, and that it can be an integral part of your identity.

“But what are you: British or Jewish?” was the response.

I pride myself that I can be both, that my identity spans polite Britishness, a taste for cucumber sandwiches and scones, and unwavering respect for queues, but also my deep Jewish roots, from Poland, Hungary, Spain and Portugal, not to mention my relation to Cromwell’s Jewish adviser Simon de Caceres.

As does my husband, who, even after meeting me — he was in his early twenties when I became the first Jewish person he’d knowlingly encountered — would probably never have expected to find himself year on year sandwiched at a huge Seder table of 45 family members and friends for three hours of prayers, readings, songs and Sephardi and Ashkenazi foods, welcomed with open arms.

Does it feel weird for you? I wondered aloud after the last one.

“Not any more,” he shrugged. “I feel a bit Jew-ish.”

January 25, 2024 15:01

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