Life & Culture

I feel that I’m Jewish when...

A poetic end to the year: Jeremy Robson reflects on feeling Jewish


… the unholy smell of bacon fills the air
At school it was always the returning day
after the December break, as those “what did
you get for Christmas” questions were bandied
round the upper deck of a schoolboy-crowded bus.
I’d respond as best I could, but Chanucah
could never hold a candle to all this.

… a lobster eyes me from a neighbouring plate

Morning prayers were also testing times.
Faced with alien hymns I’d somehow mouth
the words, changing some to avoid the ones I knew
I shouldn’t sing, for God I felt was listening in.
Clearly, a Pilgrim I would never be.

… I hear an anti-Jewish jibe I wasn’t meant to hear

‘‘But you don’t look Jewish’’ was the surprised riposte
when fists flying I weighed angrily in, cheering
class-mates egging us on as we wrestled on the cold
playground tarmac — until, mercifully, a passing master
firmly called a halt, realising it wasn’t a game.
After that it was never quite the same.

… fresh croissants tempt when Passover forbids

In church for a celebration or commemoration
it’s the kneeling moments when, while not wishing
to offend I contrive not to bend, and when, if a
communion wafer is proffered, I shy quietly
away, anxious to avoid an unseemly display.

… Jewish graves have been desecrated again

It is not so much the beauty of the Kol Nidre
and Yizkor services on Yom Kippur, with their
echoes, shadows and memories, or not only
this, but also that indelible moment in an
empty Moscow synagogue when, led through a
half-hidden door by a nervous guard and standing
hand-in hand with my wife and daughter in the
silent sanctuary, tears overwhelmed us

… the echoes, the shadows, the Babi Yar memories,
the wary eyes everywhere as we approached.
So often the Prayer for the Dead to be said…

In Prague, amidst the gravestones of the ancient
Jewish cemetery, layered one upon the other over
the centuries for lack of space, the scholars,
the cobblers, the well- to-do… in Cordoba too,
under a ruthless sun, where Maimonides’ statue
ignites memories of a people forced to convert or flee —
my own wife’s history… and in the cobbled streets
of the Venice Ghetto, where the Doges decreed the
city’s Jews must live and pray, as some do to this day.
Shylock might well think there is still a debt to pay.

… anti-Jewish stirrings in France spark an exodus

Strolling in safer times as darkness embraced
the hills of Judea where the Prophets walked — the
vivid stars of a Jerusalem night like no other sight —
or gazing in wonder from the heights of Masada
with their martyrs’ history, or afloat in Galilee’s
beautiful Sea, miracles always seemed to be
near at hand in this biblical land

as they seemed to be again when hundreds of
Hamas rockets blackened those timeless skies,
though suicide-bombings, beheadings, terror, gas
and rape continue to be the every-day language
of the surrounding states.

… there are calls for an academic boycott of Israel

Still the hostile voices that distort and abuse.
Do I hear the ghosts of history cry, “J’accuse”?

I know I’m Jewish when…

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