One of the upsides of spending my week in Canberra (and there were, it must be admitted, very few upsides), was that I got to read a rather delightful article that was in the Canberra Times on Tuesday. Written by Sarfraz Manzoor, it began, “I am not, in a strictly factual sense, Jewish. But put to one side my Asian looks, ignore my Pakistani parentage and overlook my Muslim name, and I could easily be one of the children of Israel. When I read, in the London-based Guardian newspaper, Jonathan Margolis’s personal piece about being ‘Jew-ish’ rather than Jewish, the bells were ringing in my head, too. What with my extensive collection of Woody Allen and Curb Your Enthusiasm DVDs, I’ve always thought I wouldn’t have to change my life hugely if I were to wake up find my name changed from Sarfraz to Seth.”
It’s important, I think, that those comedians (as much as it annoys me that it’s the skinny men who continue to dominate) are some of the most important signifiers in a transnational, western conception of ‘Jewishness’. I can’t watch Curb (it just makes my skin crawl), but a friend loves to tell me about the episode where Larry finds out that he was adopted, and that his birth parents are not Jewish. And for the duration of the episode he loses his neuroses, he becomes confident and energetic. By the end, though, he has found out that that is wrong, and that he is indeed Jewish by birth. And he reverts back to his ordinary neurotic self. Because that’s a fundamental signifier of diaspora ‘Jewishness’. And it’s a signifier which is to be embraced – the worries, the anxieties of the outsider – as long as it can be put to productive, positive use. Which I think it can.
But back to Sarfraz, and his experiences. He begins by going to a Purim party, where he becomes totally confused by the random choices of costumes (there’s a Chinese theme which is not explained to him). And then a rabbi takes him to a re-enactment of the Exodus: “Inside, the audience was entirely Jewish: men with brimmed hats and ringlets and women clasping half a dozen children. I thought Muslims had a lot of children until I started spending time with Jewish people. Dressed in my tweed jacket and conspicuously not wearing a large black hat, I was the only non-Jew present – and I couldn’t have felt more out of place if I’d been stark naked with ‘Long live Palestine’ tattooed on my chest. The event had been organised by the youth wing of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect whose name translated as ‘Army of God’. I wanted to tell the organisers that we had an Army of God in Islam, too—better known by its Arabic name of Hezbollah—but I didn’t have the chutzpah.”
Of course, Safraz doesn’t note that most Jews also feel completely alienated in such spaces, and that there are many Jews who point out that there is a deep hypocrisy in the ways in which young Jews in the diaspora are sent to Israel on programs which inevitably involve some sort of army training; but they then criticise Palestinians who embrace similar militarisation.
Safraz notes the ways in which history, music, poetry, and stories shape the Jewish identity of the people he speaks to. And the deep similarities between some aspects of his own history: that his mother too was a seamstress in London, just as Jews had been; that there are particular stories which bring nations together, constituting them in their telling.
He tries chicken soup, but finds it a bit bland (“keep your chicken soup, [he] felt like saying [to the woman who cooked it with him]… I’ll stick to chicken jalfrezi”); and he talks to people about the possibilities of Jews dating non-Jews (“23-year-old Ella [said] “The things I am looking for in a man are rarely found in a non-Jew,” she said. What are they? I asked. “A connection with one’s Judaism,” she said, and I had to agree that she would have had a hard time finding that in a non-Jew.”). He ends on a bit of an obvious note (that there is a “powerful truth” that despite out differences we “really are more similar”), but his piece presents some nice anecdotes, and reinforces some important ideas of the fraughtness of identity; of the places in which diasporic identities are located; and of the pressures of conforming to some