Life & Culture

The fear factor

The last thing that Keren David wanted to do was write a book about antisemitism. But she faced her fears and went ahead.


A young happy college female student with a book sitting on window sill at home, studying.

It was quite easy to answer my agent’s tentative suggestion that perhaps my next book for young adults might be Jewish…one that touched on the subject of contemporary antisemitism. No. Absolutely not. Sorry, but no.

I’ll admit it, the very idea scared me. I didn’t want to become a target of internet trolls. Nor did I want Jewish readers to criticise my take on the subject, because it didn’t line up with their own experiences.

Anyway, I had written a Jewish book before, This is Not a Love Story, published by Atom in 2015. I knew it was ground-breaking, because I’d grown up never seeing myself in a book and I found it bizarre that my kids were more likely to see versions of themselves on American television than in British YA books. But the novelty value of my book’s Jewish characters seemed to pass the book world by five years ago, and I did not want to waste time doing the same thing twice.

So, I carried on with life. But the idea niggled away. What would a YA book about contemporary antisemitism say? How would I go about it?

Meanwhile here at the JC we were reporting and analysing antisemitism all the time. And on social media it was there too, as friends and acquaintances, Jewish and non-Jewish, debated Corbyn’s Labour party. I found myself reluctantly wading in to explain and argue. I tried to stay reasonable and calm, but sometimes got upset and emotional, raging more against ignorance than prejudice.

If only people knew more, if only they understood the tropes and the history of anti-Jewish hate — if only they knew more about Jews in general. Ideas for a book were swirling around my head, now. But it all felt too much to fit into a plot. There was so much to say, and yet no obvious way to say it.

It would never happen, I decided. It was all too complicated and difficult and, yes, scary. Time to tell my agent to forget all about it. And then, as I was rushing to cook our meal before the fast for Yom Kippur 2018, the plot of the book, all elements present, dropped neatly into my head, along with the title: What We’re Scared Of, an answer to those Facebook acquaintances who’d scoffed at the very idea that British Jews might be targets of racism. But what could I do? I had no time to stop and write down my idea, not for more than 25 hours at least. And the meal had to be on the table very soon. I scrabbled together an email to myself, with the main points. And then tried not to think about it.

Once the fast was over, I sat and wrote a proposal for my agent. A few weeks later we had a contract from Scholastic UK — fantastic publishers who’d been discussing the idea with my agent for ages and waiting very patiently for me to come up with something.

The idea that made all the difference can be summed up in one word. Twins. By creating two 14-year-old sisters and putting them into the same situation, I could explore their very different responses to antisemitism. I gave them a mother who was distinctly ambivalent about her Jewishness, and a non-Jewish dad who was rather keen on it.

One — Lottie — would be sensitive, anxious, studious and spiritual, ready to explore a new (to her) world of Modern Orthodox Judaism. Originally I envisaged Lottie’s chapters written partly in blank verse which is very fashionable now in YA literature -— but, when I tried, I realised that I could not write poetry at all, which was sad. Maybe I’ll try again one day with a different subject.

Then there was Evie, sassy, cynical, funny and determined to be a stand up comedian. Evie was far more resistant to the idea of identifying as Jewish in any way at all, and activism, rather than religion is her response to the antisemitism that the family experiences. In writing her I was influenced by the many dual heritage Jews that I’ve seen on social media who’ve ‘come out’ in the last few years, in order to fight the antisemitic trolls. My hope was that Lottie and Evie between them would inspire young Jews including those on the fringes of our community to feel proud and strong, able to explore their Jewish identity in all kinds of ways.

Friendships are a huge part of teen fiction. I gave Lottie a bunch of Mean Girls as friends, people she’d have to stand up to in order to swop them for Hannah, from a frum family, who acts as Lottie’s guide to Jewishness, while dealing with her own problems with the gendered nature of Orthodoxy.

Evie’s best friend is Amina, a Muslim girl, and they have various wobbles and miscommunications during the course of the book — especially over the charms of a passionately left-wing older boy, Luke. And then there is Noah, half French from Paris, scarred by the antisemitism he has suffered there, and determined that Israel will be where he ends up.

I knew that there would have to be a Holocaust element to the book, but I did not want to make anything up. So I asked a survivor, Mala Tribich, if I could use her words and her testimony in the book, and she generously agreed. We spent hours together, as she told me about her horrific experiences in the ghetto of Piotrków Trybunalski — coincidentally, the area of Poland where my grandmother’s family came from — and in Ravensbruck and Belsen. I realised that all my life I’d avoided confronting the Shoah in this close, personal way. Listening to Mala made me feel braver and stronger somehow. I hope that it might have a similar effect on readers.

The wonderful thing about writing for teenagers is that nowhere in the book did I have to mention Jeremy Corbyn. It’s not about recent political history, per se. Instead it’s about fear — the emotion that we don’t want to own and would rather not explore. It’s about being the object of prejudice — which itself grows out of misguided fear — and the way that fear rumbles through the generations, touching us without even being discussed. It’s about the connections between all the different types of anti-Jewish racism, left, right, Islamist, ‘mild’ and violent.

But also it’s about conquering fear, with love and laughter, and by facing it, and fighting it. The last words are “l’chaim!”

I didn’t want to write this book, and it took forever to finish it — a full year longer than anyone expected. There were times when I thought I’d give up. But finally it is published. Some people have told me I am “brave” but I don’t think so. I have great faith in young readers. They are open-minded and big-hearted, willing to listen and learn. And when a book makes an impact at that age, as I hope this one will, it remains with you for the rest of your life.

What We’re Scared Of is published by Scholastic UK (£7.99). Keren David is associate editor (features) of the JC. She will be taking part in an online panel event ‘Beyond the Beard: Re-Thinking Jewish Representation’ on Monday January 25,


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