Renegade Jewess

A Renegade Jewess                    Part 3  Ch. 1                         ©  Karen Margolis    2010

A Renegade Jewess

PART THREE: A Feminist Jewess

1. Faith, Fashion and Choice

how odd of God
to choose the Jews

W.N. Ewer
Verse & Worse, Faber&Faber 1958, p. 256

The woman in the headscarf sat at the back of the ladies’ gallery, following the
service intently in the prayer book. From where she sat she could hardly see the
action below, but that didn’t seem to bother her. She scarcely looked up at all. Her
lips moved with the songs and prayers, her eyes fixed on the Hebrew words
before her. She never spoke to her neighbours in the gallery, and she frowned
when the chatter around her grew too loud. My sisters and I dubbed her ‘The
Mouse’ because she always wore grey or brown skirts and beige twin sets. No
jewellery, no make-up, no decoration of any kind, not even the hint of a smile
relieved the drab, solitary appearance of The Mouse. She first appeared in the
Hampstead synagogue one spring Saturday morning, and from then on she sat in
her back seat every Shabbat and holy day until she became a fixture.

The Mouse’s most remarkable feature was her headscarf. Most of the women in
the ladies’ gallery wore hats, and those hats were something special. A new hat
for the high holy days was a talking point from the time it was sought on shopping
expeditions to the moment it was unpacked from its hatbox, unwrapped from the
tissue paper and donned for its premiere outing. During the service the hat served
as a beacon for the men folk looking up at their women and children in the gallery;
the more elaborate and striking the headgear, the easier for husbands and sons
below to spot their family above. Most of all, the hat was a status symbol that
declared whether its wearer shopped at posh West End department stores or had
to make do with the local milliner.

The headscarf, on the other hand, was an everyday item for charwomen, school
dinner ladies, factory workers and housewives hiding their curlers. In the 1950s it
enjoyed a brief fashion heyday inspired by pictures of Hollywood glamour girls like
Marilyn Monroe at home on the ranch, but by the Sixties, when we sat in the
synagogue, it had been relegated back to its origins — as folk costume or
functional headwear for women workers. For us, The Mouse’s headscarf was not a
religious, but a class statement.

On social occasions when the congregation crowded into the back room for
Kiddush, or gathered under the hanging fruit when the roof was slid back to
transform the room into the sukkah for the harvest festival, The Mouse remained
on the fringes. If we passed her in the crowd, we would murmur polite greeting
before sweeping past to grab niblets and fish canapés from the trays doing the
rounds. She would nod silently in reply and lower her eyes. We never saw her
eating the snacks or speaking to anybody except Reverend Bronsky.

Our mother rebuked us for our rude comments on The Mouse. “She’s a convert,”
she explained. “You have to treat her with respect. It’s not easy being a convert.”

Pressed to explain, my mother elucidated some of the hurdles that had to be
jumped to join Us, the Chosen People. Aside from learning Hebrew, studying the
Torah and being able to learning about Jewish practices and traditions, you had to
keep a kosher kitchen. The rabbi would come to check up whether you were doing
it properly. As our mother had given up the time-consuming rituals of a kosher
kitchen when we moved to London, where we had no domestic help, she was
reluctant to elaborate on the topic. If the rabbi had dropped in to check on her
larder, aside from non-kosher food he would have found forbidden goodies like
tinned shellfish. Our mother had a ready and rational argument for that: the dietary
laws had evolved in ancient times to preserve food hygiene and health in the hot
Oriental climate, hence the emphasis on clean slaughter, purifying of foodstuffs
and hand washing. Muslims, who originated from the same region, kept the same
laws for similar reasons. But nowadays, with humane and hygienic slaughter
methods, and fridges and sterile packaging, the old laws were obsolete. From our
mother’s viewpoint, selectively ignoring them was a sign of modern Judaism.

While we were curious about The Mouse in her charwoman’s headscarf, keeping
her kitchen kosher-clean, salting and soaking the raw meat before cooking, and
separating the cutlery and crockery for meat and milk dishes, the theme of
conversion and religious law unsettled my mother. Her mother-in-law had objected
to her as a bride for my father because she couldn’t be trusted to keep a kosher
kitchen, the primary test for a prospective Jewish wife. As children my sisters and I
had observed our parents preparing nervously for visits from the paternal in-laws.
Everything had to be double-checked to ensure that my grandmother’s sharp eyes
didn’t uncover any transgressions, dietary or otherwise.

My paternal grandmother was practically the antithesis of the modern woman my
mother aspired to. Under her headscarf was a wig. According to Jewish custom in
Lithuania, where she grew up, the bride’s head was shaved on her wedding night,
and remained covered from the world for the rest of her days. The custom
persisted into the modern age in some parts of Eastern Europe.

Among the Jews of the shtetl, as in Islam, the woman’s headscarf was a hands-off
warning to any other man except her lawful husband. Its secondary function of
concealing a primary element of woman’s beauty, her hair, also served to keep
male predators at bay. The headscarf was part of ancient strictures on female
modesty: the Hebrew Bible contains injunctions to women not to display their
attractions too openly, and warns of dire punishment for those who
disobey. In this sense, The Mouse’s outfit was quite religiously correct.

My mother, who had a talent for fashion drawing and loved fine clothes, was proud
of her emancipated style and contemptuous of women who obeyed religious dress
codes. The Mouse didn’t fit into her world. But there were other reasons, not
merely aesthetic, for my mother’s distaste of conversion — reasons shared
discreetly by most of our Jewish circle. In the first place, we were born Jewish. We
were born into the Chosen People, and that was an act of God, not a matter of
choice. Although it was never said openly, our Judaism was defined in terms of
ethnicity and tradition, not religion. My parents never distinguished between
apostate and practising Jews: the line they drew was between those born as
Chosen People and those destined to a life outside the fold.

This was no matter for pride or self-satisfaction, because being Jewish meant
suffering. Being one of the Chosen meant carrying the burden of six million
corpses all through your life, and reproaching yourself for surviving and enjoying
life, and having to be eternally grateful to the God that spared you on a daily basis.
It meant being ever watchful, fearful that the Terrible Event would come to pass
again. It wasn’t easy being chosen without any choice in the matter. It was more
like a duty imposed by an external power, or a tribute exacted for privilege and
good fortune.

There was another reason why we viewed female converts with pity mingled with
contempt. As my mother explained, the final stage of conversion for both men and
women involves immersion in the mikveh, the ritual bath — a precursor of
Christian baptism rites. Orthodox women are required to visit the mikveh for
purification on many different occasions, especially after menstruation and giving
birth, and before their wedding. In some Orthodox communities the woman
convert is accompanied by the rabbi’s wife or other respected female community
members. (Nowadays the rabbi’s wife is often replaced by a woman attendant, the
mikveh lady.) When the convert enters the shallow pool, the attendant women
duck her head under water until she is completely immersed. (Modern variations
include dipping alone or using a shower to ensure that head and body are thoroughly soaked.My mother found this orthodox ritual bath repellent. Many strands of Judaism

today, including the Reform movement in the USA, have renounced the mikveh as
irrelevant, obsolete or incompatible with modern religious practice. Others have
developed completely new functions and meaning for it. But in Orthodox
communities the mikveh is still so important that construction of a synagogue can’t
begin before this ritual bath has been built, usually in the basement. Modern
mikvehs look like spa immersion pools, more sanitary than sacral, but the
ceremony is still reminiscent of biblical times. Much has been written about mikveh
rituals; some novels and memoirs by modern Israeli women testify to humiliation
and degradation suffered by women forced to go to the mikveh.

To many people in my parents’ generation who grew up immediately after the
Second World War and the Holocaust, being Jewish meant defiant rejection of the
persecution that had nearly wiped out their people. As young adults, my parents
embraced Zionism and dreamed of joining the kibbutz pioneers to build a new
society in Palestine. Many of their contemporaries took this path, often inspired by
socialist dreams. Young Jews rebelled against their parents and discarded ancient
customs and rites. They felt that no kind of piety or adherence to religious ritual
could have saved their murdered relatives from extermination. The image of a line
of Jews walking toward the gas chambers murmuring the shema in chorus was
ingrained in their consciousness: hardly an encouraging picture for the Jewish
youth of the future. Whether fighting for and building a new society in Israel, or
facing the consequences of adjustment to the post-Holocaust world in the
Diaspora — including emigration and adaptation to unfamiliar host societies —
many young Ashkenazi Jews of that period did not want to be weighed down by
the past. The ghettos of Eastern Europe that had housed their forefathers were
associated with the memory of Nazi ghettos and concentration camps of the
immediate past. The further my parents departed from this, the more they could
hope to ward off the shadow of extermination. Assimilation promised the benefits
of security in anonymity.

Our emigration in the 1960s from South Africa to London, just as the city was
becoming the swinging hub of the western world, intensified my parents’ dilemmas
over their Jewish heritage. However hard they tried to hang on to familiar patterns
based on religion and the family, their budding teenage daughters strained against
tradition and dragged them forcibly into the world outside. On Saturday mornings,
girls in miniskirts and boys with long hair strolled past the synagogue in noisy,
confident groups while we sat isolated in the service. Around us in the Ladies’
Gallery, women worshippers exchanged cosmetic and diet tips while the men
below keened and sang and swapped business gossip. We sisters sat there,
unwilling captives, searching for arguments to avoid synagogue. Religion was out.

Not for The Mouse: she obviously wanted in. Every Saturday morning she sat
frowning over her prayer book, a solitary reminder of a world other people had lost.
Why did she choose to join what we were struggling so hard to leave behind?

“Judaism,” Reverend Bronsky informed us at cheder, the Hebrew Sunday school,
“is not a religion of conversion.” My sisters and I exchanged glances, thinking of
The Mouse but unsure whether to broach the delicate subject. Converts had to be
respected, our parents said; but they also seemed to be despised, or at least
avoided. Reverend Bronsky confined his remarks on conversion to the present
day. He didn’t refer to the time when Jews forcibly converted other peoples or
carried off their women and forced them to submit to Jewish law and customs. He
sidestepped discussion about biblical founding fathers born to heathen
concubines. As far as Reverend Bronsky was concerned, the rule was that you
were Jewish if your mother was Jewish. Converts were accepted, but not actively

However, he concluded firmly, converts cast off their previous existence when they
became Jewish, and once they were accepted into the Jewish community they
were to be regarded as Jewish like the rest of us.

This was a sophisticated argument for school children to grasp. We are the
Chosen People and therefore different to the rest of the world. We don’t really
want them to join Us, but if they knock on the gates convincingly and persistently
enough, We’ll let them in after they have passed stringent tests not required of Us,
and from then on they will be full members and everybody has to forget that they
once lived beyond the gates in the realm of The Others.

This is a question of faith, not logic, and you can’t expect a child to understand

The issue of conversion to Judaism is not resolved by the rules. It is hard to
suppress the knowledge that somebody is a convert and act as if they are ‘really’
Jewish. As I lived my early social life largely among Jews, I have an instinctive
antenna for ‘Jewishness’, even in strangers — in the same way people from
similar ethnic backgrounds often identify each other in a wider society. I
sometimes felt this Jewishness about people I met in Eastern Europe, even before
the end of the communist era. Subsequently they actually discovered they were
Jews — their families had kept it hidden for decades. If I sense Jewishness
missing in somebody who calls themselves a Jew, the image of The Mouse
nibbles at a corner of my mind, raising the suspicion of conversion.

There can be no argument against the Jewish community’s definition of converts
as bona fide Jews. Every organised community sets its own entrance
requirements and membership tests. Yet if I had not been born Jewish, I certainly
wouldn’t knock at the gates of organised Jewry and ask to be taken in. People who
do so are operating on a religious basis that has little in common with my life or
perspectives as a Jew. My attitude to converts to Judaism is similar to how an
atheist regards converts to any organised religion.

From a sociological perspective, converts to Judaism are historical newcomers to
a group whose ethnicity has determined a particular fate over the centuries.
Converts come from families who have neither experienced the joy and pride, nor
suffered the pain and penalty of being Jewish through the ages.

The Mouse lay dormant for many years in her little dark hole in my subconscious
— until the signs of a growing conversion trend in Berlin’s Jewish community from
the early 2000s. At a conference of Jewish feminists in Berlin in 2003, I spotted
several versions of The Mouse clad in long-sleeved dresses despite the warm
spring weather, and adorned with religiously correct headwear, from a simple scarf
or beret to the colourful embroidered caps often worn by Middle Eastern men.
Some of the women in this attire were converts. My conference workshop on women artists’
expressions of Jewish themes was unforgettably dominated by a
German civil servant who explained at length how she had converted to Judaism
and asserted her new Jewish self by wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl, under the
jacket of her work uniform. (The shawls are traditionally for prayer, but Orthodox
men often wear them in daily life as well.) This was the first time I had encountered
a woman in street wear with a tallit, its knotted white fringes peeping out from
under the hem of her jacket.

That woman civil servant was no Mouse. She radically shook up my image of
Jewish converts. Breathing righteous fervour, she embarked on a lengthy account
of her struggle with the German bureaucracy to be allowed to wear religious garb
on duty, and her efforts to persuade her co-workers to accept her explicit
‘Jewishness’. The monologue concluded with effulgent praise for her husband,
who had not converted but had loyally supported her decision and her battle for
religious freedom in the workplace.

There is no difference between her arguments and those of Muslim women in
public service campaigning for the right to wear headscarves. It is an imposition of
private belief in the public domain, and has no place in a secular society. For most
acculturated Jews in Europe and America today, religious dress code is a non-
issue. They feel nothing in common with the ultra-religious sects and their ghetto-
throwback outfits of black hats and suits, beards and side locks. One of the
benefits of free religious practice in modern secular societies is that you don’t have
to be outwardly identifiable. If you choose to be, it may be a short step to a political

The misplaced fervour of religious converts has become a serious political issue
with the recruitment of people who become Muslims, join radical Islamist sects and
end up as fanatics and sometimes willing suicide bombers. As Judaism is not a
proselytising religion, discussion about the role of converts within the Jewish world
is less open. Jewish communities generally don’t publish statistics on conversion,
but it seems to be on the rise in Germany. In 2007 a well-known German Jewish
journalist, Henryk Broder, wrote a satirical article about Germans converting to
Judaism and then trying to tell all the others how to be good or better Jews. Broder
was particularly scathing about the fact that German converts do not share the
terrible history of the Shoah with the other members of the Jewish community. You
can’t take on centuries of suffering and persecution by proxy.

Around the same time as Broder’s article appeared, some long-standing members
of Berlin’s Jewish community were complaining sotto voce about the ‘convert
takeover’ of one of Berlin’s synagogues. The general opinion was that converts
should be seen but not heard. Meanwhile, more than a few converts, encouraged
by growing liberalism in other quarters of the community, took up studying for
rabbinical exams.

By the summer of 2007, Sonja, a Jewish friend whose family history in Berlin goes
back several generations, was complaining about a female convert who had
become a rabbi and was now criticising other Jews for not knowing the holy texts.
The new rabbi’s attitude smacks of Protestant bible fetishism. Strictures on
studying the scriptures, with their overtones of intellectual superiority, merely
alienate people who attend synagogue for its social side, to get away from the
daily grind and relax among friends within their community.

But if you’re not born into it, where does that sense of community come from? The
question is doubly important in Germany. Since the Shoah, there have been deep
divisions in society between victims and perpetrators, between people who
resisted and those who kept their heads down in the Nazi era. More than 60 years
later, the divisions are still there, transported by family histories that continue to
defy explanation, demand constant re-examination and inspire anger and sorrow.
A person who has grown up on the ‘other side’ can’t know what it’s like to light a
row of candles on Holocaust Memorial Day and watch them burn, often without
even knowing exactly how their murdered relatives died.

“When a converted German woman stands up as a rabbi to read from the list of
Shoah victims, how do we know it wasn’t her grandfather who murdered them?”
Sonja asks. There’s no answer. Born a generation after the war, the German
woman can’t be held responsible for her grandfather’s actions. Yet here in
Germany, conversion to Judaism inevitably raises the issue of blood, inherited
guilt and complicity. There is no rational answer because there is no rationality
possible in the face of the Shoah — or any other genocide. In the end, people
follow their feelings (and ingrown prejudices).

Hanging over all this is the big question mark of inherited guilt.  Germans who
convert to Judaism often display the exaggerated philo-Semitism of descendants
atoning for the sins of their forefathers. Maybe they hope that if they chant the
prayers and blessings often enough and keep a kosher kitchen, they will be able to
expunge the collective or individual guilt with which history has burdened them.
This kind of thinking belongs to the general (predominantly Christian) perception of
atonement in western religious culture: it has much in common with penance,
charitable works and donating money to the poor.

However genuinely some German converts embrace their new Jewish faith, the
suspicion remains that they are trying to cast off a burdensome identity. You can
sense this in the fervour of new converts who broadcast each stage in the process
of their entry into Judaism. Some emergent Jews can talk inexhaustibly about the
theory and practice of the religion, the wit and wisdom of their rabbi, and the
salutary effects of daily prayer, honouring the Sabbath, and Torah study. I have
attended celebrations to mark the circumcisions of middle-aged male converts
where details of the Operation circulate in whispers while the happy celebrant,
dressed in his Saturday best, bathes in the aura of belonging to the Chosen
People at last.

It is not comfortable to be there for the purpose of giving somebody else the sense
of identity and community you haven’t found yourself. The phenomenon of
conversion in western societies may be interesting from a psychosocial viewpoint,
but I can hardly cheer on new recruits when The Mouse is peeking over my
shoulder — and I am pulled back to the teenage frustration of sitting in the dimly-lit
synagogue with my family on Saturday mornings and festivals, while beyond the
closed doors Sixties London is swinging in the bright sunshine of a summer of
love. The memory revives my teenage rejection of religion and the joyful, liberating
dive into anonymous apostasy and universal political causes. Harking back to the
critical spirit of those times, I wonder at today’s converts voluntarily jumping the
hurdles to join an anachronistic and largely patriarchal set-up whose current trend
is towards a split between ultra-religious orthodoxy and New Age adaptations. But
maybe I can’t understand converts to Judaism because they believe in God, and
not just any god, but the Jewish God.

Conversion takes us back to the mystery of religion, and why people believe. It
brings us slap up against the borderline between religion and atheism, spirituality
and rationalism, and right up to date with the atheist crusade that has occupied so
much media space since the mid-2000s. On a global scale, the issue of
conversion has gradually shifted from personal matters like contacts, convenience
and life phases to political issues of head-counting and fanaticism, splinter groups
and sects. In some parts of the world, the 20th century left a gaping hole in belief
systems and a mass of individual and collective identity problems, and religion is
being used as a way to fill the gap. In this process, the number of proselytes in
Judaism is minuscule compared with the conversions or changes of faith taking
place in other religions.

The days are gone when self-preservation or the desire for assimilation forced or
prompted Jews to convert to other religions. Since the Holocaust, it has been
impossible to believe that renouncing Judaism offers any protection against anti-
Semitism and, ultimately, genocide. At least in western countries, Jews, like other
religious minorities, live in relative peace and security (and enjoy state protection
against racists and anti-Semites); there are constitutional guarantees on freedom
of religious faith and practice, and religion has become (formally, at any rate) a
private issue. Atheism and agnosticism are socially acceptable. In the circles I
move in there is no external pressure to profess or practice religion. This means
converts to Judaism are usually making a purely personal choice.

Leaving aside the question of faith, and the social or economic advantages that
may prompt religious conversion, many people are simply looking for a sense of
community in a world where secular faiths and ideologies have failed. Religious
communities are usually quite happy to welcome these strays into the fold. And as
I learned in my schooldays, the Jews, like many other closed groups, can attract
outsiders looking for identification. At our girls’ high school in London in the 1960s,
the pupils met every morning in the big hall for assembly. Every day except
Wednesday, after the headmistress’ greeting a large minority of the girls would file
out to a separate room for Jewish prayers, while the majority stayed for the
Christian version. Wednesday was the day of United Prayers, when Christ was
carefully kept off the agenda. Nobody ever asked how the school body divided
neatly into just two religious groups when there were so many other religions in the
world. There seemed to be a tacit arrangement that any Muslims or Hindus among
us stayed quietly with the Christians.

Now and then, out of curiosity or to cheat the teachers, a Christian girl would join
the line of Jewish ones and smuggle herself into ‘our’ prayers. Since most of us
didn’t take religion seriously, we never gave the game away. We also kept it quiet
throughout our school years that one girl in our class, Gilly, technically shouldn’t
have attended Jewish prayers at all. Her father was Jewish, but not her mother;
and we all knew it was the mother that counted. But we weren’t inclined to apply
rules; many of us came from non-religious families, and credentials weren’t
important. Instinctively we felt that being Jewish and having our own prayers made
us privileged over the rest of the school; it was understandable that Gilly joined us
out of choice. The morning prayers together united the Jewish girls and gave us a
sense of kinship that certainly wouldn’t have existed otherwise. They shaped us
into a definable community, and we were quite willing to welcome non-Jewish girls
who wanted to identify with us. This was an early experience of how a closed
group based on religion (or ethnicity) can exercise a powerful pull over people
close to it, yet excluded. This is the lure of belonging that plays such a big role in

Having grown up breathing the ’60s zeitgeist, my classmates continued in step
with our generation. In the New Age haze of the 1980s and ’90s, quite a few of the
girls who had attended Jewish prayers with me at school — including Gilly —
followed the changing fashion and became Buddhists. Gilly once invited me to a meeting
in London where a group of people sat in a circle on floor mats in front of a small
Buddha shrine, chanting a Japanese prayer over and over again. I joined in, but
nothing happened. It was as remote as watching a movie. Meanwhile Gilly, flushed
and happy, swept along by the rhythm of the chanting, was obviously enjoying
some kind of high.

Trying to imagine embracing a different religion, I recalled the years of my youth
reciting the shema and singing psalms. Faced with the alien cadences of the
Japanese chant, and the toy-like Buddha statuette in the little shrine, I suddenly
felt a yen for Jewish kitsch. The memory of the Hebrew incantations, the Torah
scroll with its embroidered velvet cover, and the scent of treacly red wine in
chased silver kiddush goblets seemed comfortingly familiar. They had been part of
my life as far back as I could remember. They would still be there even if I never
again entered a synagogue or sat at a Passover table.

With the Buddhist chant ringing around me, the image of The Mouse slowly
resurfaced — and I finally realised why she was so intriguing. It was not just the
headscarf or the tight-lipped piety. It was the sight of a grown woman consciously
and willingly submitting to what I had absorbed subliminally and involuntarily from
an early age, and begun to resist as a teenager: indoctrination, the process by
which religion is passed on from one generation to the next and new recruits are
won. The Mouse has become my personal symbol of the conflict between
individualism (the outside world) and organised religion (the family). While my
sisters and I were struggling for our own identity, our Jewish family and its
community were striving to keep their grip, constantly reining us in with an
insidious bond, forcing us to conform. Many people can only sever that bond by
deserting the family and community that binds them with religion. Western society
offers the opportunity to merge into secularism. In most of today’s world, Jews are
able to assimilate but still retain their cultural identity while openly professing
atheism or apostasy. The Canadian bard Leonard Cohen summed it up when he
explained that sometimes he enjoyed living in retreat as a Buddhist monk, but felt
no need to convert to Buddhism. He said he was quite happy with his own religion
— Judaism.

In the marketplace of religions there is plenty on offer, and a constant stream of
new products. The major world religions all have their media empires, PR agents,
sports and fashion departments, culture committees, kindergartens, schools,
academies and universities. All are trying to resolve the modern contradiction
between secular individualism and religious adherence. A wannabe shopping for
conversion opportunities in the Jewish segment of the market can choose between
a variety of ‘heavy’ or ‘light’ versions, between stringent orthodoxy and egalitarian
liberalism, headscarves or beards, designer-dressed women cantors or surfing
rabbis, Sephardi or Ashkenazi dialects and customs, and three-times-a-year
worship or daily prayers. Even if you don’t want to go the whole way, you can sign
up for membership of a cabbala centre and drop by for spiritual counselling.

For all that choice, secularity seems to be winning out in most western countries.
In the 40 years since I was a teenager, synagogue attendance has fallen
drastically in many parts of the world. Whereas converting in order to marry a Jew
has declined, ‘marrying out’ has become inevitable and is now tolerated by many
assimilated western Jews (if not explicitly welcomed). Judaism is being forced to
adapt to new generations of people with only one Jewish parent, some demanding
a share of Jewish identity (and their Christmas tree as well). Because they would
probably have been persecuted as Jews under Hitler’s Nuremberg racial laws, it is
hard to refuse them. One of the bitter ironies of the Holocaust is that the Nazis’
definition of racial membership has become a kind of benchmark for claims to
Jewish membership.

Still, in common with major religious trends in most western countries, the number
of Jews drifting away from organised religion is far greater than the numbers
converting to Judaism or switching to other religions. The time is past when Jews
had to adopt other religions to get out of the ghetto or evade persecution. Yet the
embrace of Judaism is not easy to escape. Jews who deny or ignore their origins
are often still seen or described as Jewish by the outside world — and not
infrequently attacked as self-hating by other Jews.

Nobody can condemn Jews who converted to other religions to escape
persecution from the Inquisition, the Nazis or any other pogroms. Yet Judaism, like
most religions, is not averse to cultivating martyrdom. The conservative ideology
that prefers suffering to resistance and survival is well illustrated by a story of
conversion from my own family. It was told to me in Jerusalem in the early 1970s
by my aunt Rivka, my father’s elder sister. She had lovingly preserved her
mother’s photo album, full of pictures of their big extended family from Lithuania,
where the family originated. Most of my father’s cousins — children or teenagers
during the Second World War — were murdered by the Nazis in the ‘Holocaust
rehearsal’ in the early 1940s, when thousands of Lithuanian Jews were shot by SS
squads (assisted by Lithuanian fascists), even before the Nazis had set up
extermination camps in Eastern Europe.

After the war, Rivka tried for years to trace her lost relatives through the Red
Cross and other missing persons agencies. (During the Cold War it was very
difficult for Jewish people to travel to Lithuania for information about the Holocaust
there.) She discovered that most of her mother’s family had perished. But the fate
of two of the children — twins from a region now in Poland — remains unknown to
this day. My aunt knew only that after their parents were deported, a priest took
care of the twins. They were baptised with new names and adopted by a Catholic

“Maybe they survived. Who knows?” sighed my aunt, closing her mother’s album
with the pictures of her Lithuanian relatives.

“At least they were saved,” I replied. “At least we know there were people willing to
risk their lives to save Jewish children — even if we don’t know the end of the
“Saved?” My aunt shook her head. “They were lost! — raised as Catholics.
Wouldn’t it have been better for them to stay Jewish and perish in the camp with
their parents?”

The choice of death rather than conversion: this was one of the last vestiges of the
ghetto past, a relic of religious martyrdom I was determined to escape. Today,
almost 40 years since that conversation in Jerusalem, the dictates of religion are
part of everyday discourse, and armies of martyrs are being recruited voluntarily or
by force the world over. Even atheism has become evangelical, with its own
prophets, mass meetings, study groups, political lobbies — and fanatical converts.

As for The Mouse, she has multiplied, and can be seen on the streets of almost
every big city the world over in modesty garb and headscarf. Today the lone
Mouse figure that once symbolised a vanishing past has multiplied into a future
crowded with religious women for whom the clock has been turned back to the
Middle Ages. For many of them, freedom has become limited to the 21st century’s
versions of consumer choice: Orthodox Jewish women can select their wigs from
glossy New York catalogues, while Paris fashion houses compete for the
worldwide luxury trade in Muslim headscarves. The dress code that The Mouse
adopted by choice along with her new religion has become a statement of religious
conformity that signifies its wearer as a member of a chosen people. Faith has
moved out of the private sphere and become publicly identifiable; and conversion
is often no longer a personal, but a social and political issue.

© Karen Margolis 2010


A Renegade Jewess

Here is the start of a book about being a woman born into a religion. The book was written in the noughties.

Some themes haven’t changed. Some questions keep returning within a lifetime.


by Karen Margolis

“In the eyes of the world, and probably in the eyes of Jews as well, great minds of the
past 100 years like Marx, Freud or Bergson, who have very little positively in
common with Judaism, are still regarded as indissolubly linked to their origins. There
is always something that seems Jewish about these three men, although their
Jewishness isn’t actually evident. This is a question that concerns us all.
And that is odd.

“We often ask ourselves whether intellectuals who have broken out of the world of
Judaism, like these three men and a great many others, are more authentic than the
parochial spirits who haven’t broken out.

“Is there actually anything at all like a real representative of that world? I think it is
highly questionable whether there is necessarily a conclusive, legitimate
representation of the living complex of Jewish intellectuality, in its rational or irrational
form, which could be established once and for all. I really don’t think so. (…)

“Oddly enough — or perhaps it’s not so very odd — the world takes note of precisely
those intellectuals who have broken out: Trotsky, Marx, Kafka, if you like. The list is
endless… ”

— Gershom Scholem

Die Erforschung der Kabbala (Studying the Kabala), interviews edited by Thomas
Knoefel and Klaus Sander, Hessische Rundfunk, Frankfurt a.M. 1967; published as
CD set by supposé, Köln, 2006


Original German text by Gershom Scholem:

“… auch große Geister der letzten hundert Jahre, wie Marx, Freud oder Bergson, die mit
dem Jüdischen positiv nur wenig verbindet, sind dennoch in den Augen der Welt, und
wahrscheinlich in den Augen der Juden selber, unlösbar mit denen verbunden, wo sie
herkommen. Es gibt immer etwas, was den Betrachter an diesen drei Männer als jüdisch
erscheint, obwohl doch das Jüdische dabei gar nicht vorkommt. Eine Frage, die uns alle
Und das ist merkwürdig.

“Geister, die aus der Welt des Judentums ausgebrochen sind, wie etwa diese drei und sehr
viel andere, wir fragen uns oft, sind diese Geister authentischer als die, die parochialen
Gestalten die nicht ausgebrochen sind.

“Gibt es überhaupt legitim so etwas wie ein eigentlichen Repräsentanten dieser Welt? Mir
scheint das sehr fragwürdig, ob e seine unbedingt entschiedene legitime Repräsentation des
lebendigen Komplexes der jüdischen Geistigkeit in ihren rationalen und irrationalen Formen
gibt, die ein für allemal festgestellt werden könnte. Ich glaube gar nicht. (…)
“Die Welt nimmt merkwürdigerweise, oder vielleicht nicht so sehr merkwürdigerweise, gerade
von den ausgebrochenen Geister Kenntnis: von Trotski, von Marx, von Kafka, wenn Sie
wollen — die Reihe ist unendlich… ”


To my readers:

Birchas Kohanim

May Adonai bless you and guard you – יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ

May Adonai make his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you – יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ

May Adonai lift up his face onto you and give you peace – יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם

God bless you

and spare you

and make his face to shine upon you

when I was a child my mother said this prayer every night
as we three sisters lay tucked up in bed
then she kissed us
murmured sleep tight
and switched off the light

The words my mother spoke every night are the first and second verses of the
Priestly Blessings (Birchas Kohanim), the last remaining vestige of the ancient Temple
service in Jerusalem.
The prayer comes from the time of Moses (Hebrew Bible, Numbers 6:26) and is said
to originate from Aaron, the first High Priest, who bestowed his loving blessing upon
Israel. The three verses, only fifteen words in all, sum up God’s dearest wishes for his
children. The words have been incorporated into every daily worship service. An
amulet with these words has been found from the time of the First Temple.

In repeating the blessing to her children every night, my mother was following an old
family tradition that had survived over generations in many different countries across
four continents.

Every night when I tuck up my little boy David in bed, I say: Good night, sleep tight,
sweet dreams.

Often I asked myself why I have broken with my family tradition. Why don’t I recite the
Birchas Kohanim like my mother did?

For all its beauty and resonance, I cannot bring myself to pass on the fiction to my
child that creation has a sex, and is male.


A Renegade Jewess      Foreword/The Golem                          © Karen Margolis        Berlin 2009


The Golem

The God of the Jews makes a difficult partner
his outline contract is all hard conditions: if, in so far as…
Did he create me? This dominant paterfamilias?
Or is he just the smoke coloured ghost of the war, prevalent conditions?

Ottó Órban*

Did he create me?
— This savage God, whose name evokes more fear than love.
— This dominant paterfamilias to whom the maintenance of patriarchy is dearer than
the happiness of the family.
— This merciless executor who is prepared to sacrifice the people who trust in him for
— This incorruptible judge who hands down immutable sentences of life or death.
— This stern teacher who instils his rigid system of values and brand of morality.
— This insidious communicator who causes me to absorb his language in outdated
translation and claims corners of my mind with unforgettable quotations.
— This immovable conversation partner I can talk to till I’m blue in the face without
any response.

Did he create me? — me, this sceptical cosmopolitan woman who has survived the
century of world wars and extermination, and has witnessed the birth of a new

Why can’t I simply carry on as before, dismissing God as a chimera, a figment of
men’s imaginations — an enduring and effective device to pacify insurgent
populations and keep women in their place?
After years of dormancy when he required very little attention and hardly infringed on
my life, this God is suddenly intruding at the most inconvenient moments. He seems
to have become ever-present. Sitting reading in a café or a subway train, I look up to
see him reflected in the eyes of people around me. Even if they didn’t grow up with
God, they are being confronted with him now. The Christian god, the Jewish god, the
Muslim god, the Buddhist god…
… all the gods man made in his own image.

Did he really create me — this God of love that turns so swiftly to hate?

I used to be able to dismiss him with a careless shrug. But now, reluctantly, I am
being forced to admit that maybe he did play some part in my creation. The God of
the Jews, the God my ancestors made in their image, embodies the sum of the lives
they passed on to me. Just as they handed down the genes that dictated my flesh
and blood and hair and bones, through the generations they bestowed a worldview
and an ingrained morality born of their belief and socialisation. Just as I can’t detach
myself from my ears, mouth and nose, my senses, feet and toes without mangling my
body, I can’t easily separate my mental processes from the ideological and religious
beliefs I was born and raised with. I can’t expunge the God of my ancestors without
doing violence to my essence.

Not that this was predestined. We are born as a blank sheet on which religion can be
written. My mother was fond of citing the Jesuit maxim: “Give us a boy till he’s seven
and we’ve got him for life”. She quoted it to prove the unscrupulousness of Christian
(The Chinese turn the Jesuit principle on its head and extrapolate it. They don’t allow
young people to be taught religion at all until they’re 18. Their version: give us an
agnostic child till he’s grown to manhood and he’ll spurn religion for life.)

Jews however, are born, not made — at least, that’s what I was always told. My
destiny was inescapable. I am an inevitable product of my Jewish ancestors.
However much this is overlaid with integration into the secularised late-Christian
society of Western Europe, whatever the thoughts and values imbibed in a class-
ridden English education, I grew up believing that I would always remain Jewish and
could never cast off my origins. Even if I tried, history would grab me from the back
and remind me that other people don’t forget. History meant words like ghetto,
pogrom, Holocaust… a litany of persecution and suffering. Words that flare up again
whenever synagogues are bombed or burned, whenever the Jews are singled out as
universal scapegoats.

Now, in the 21st century, our destiny is being inextricably linked with those other
inheritors of Abraham’s faith — the Muslims. The enduring and insoluble conflict in
the Middle East seems to resurrect passages from the Bible or Koran. The
accusations and counter-accusations of the propaganda war are like a family quarrel,
with the quality of a scratched vinyl record always sticking at the same point. The
world is waiting for somebody to come along and move the needle on, to stop the
repetitive screeching of spokespeople endlessly cataloguing their grievances and
pointing the finger at the opposing side. In a modern secular context we could talk
about children quarrelling over who stole whose toy, or who cheated whom out of his
profit or inheritance; but the language of psychology, economics or politics has long
since been squeezed out of this conflict. The protagonists resort to talk of birthrights
and ancient territorial claims, clinging to concepts thousands of years old to justify
present actions and attitudes.

Nothing in my background of liberal tolerance based on the noble ideas of the
Enlightenment has prepared me to understand religious fanaticism. The Judaism I
grew up with mourned martyrs, but rarely made heroes of them. It’s a complete
mystery to me how people can kill or die for their faith. Constant media bombardment
with facts and (dis)information only confuses things all the more; and explanations
that made sense to me in the past have been relegated to obsolescence since —
Since when? The end of the Cold War? The dawn of the new millennium? Certainly
well before a fateful day that US pundits have encoded military-style as ‘9/11’, and
Hollywood has dramatised as ‘Doomsday Tuesday’. No amount of commentaries by
elder statesmen, philosophers, famous writers and retired or reformed revolutionaries
can help to find the way back to sweet reason, or piece together crumbling ideologies.
Maybe we are suffering from a surfeit of pictures showing collapsing high rises and
billowing smoke clouds. After more than half a decade, the initial shock of surprise
attack has been dissipated by time. What linger on are slow-motion images of
shimmering colossi dissolving into dust. They have become a metaphor for the
collapse of The World as We Know It.

The attack on the World Trade Centre left a flaming question mark hanging over the
entire world. Every day seemed to become a day of crisis, of potential catastrophe, a
series of Breaking News items that kept on coming relentlessly even if you stayed
clear of the electronic living room. (In Berlin the gutter press headlines even pursue
you on close-circuit TV on the underground trains.)

Nobody could work out exactly what the question mark referred to.

In the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington, the flames became so
widely diffused that they seemed to refer to a whole mass of issues (including
expansionist political ambitions and increased state control). Like the eruption of
pimples at the onset of puberty, the explosion of naked hatred and violence on 11
September 2001 brought out the internal impurities clogging the world’s psychic
pores. The accumulated fluids of anger, envy, hatred, the desire for revenge and
bloody justice spilled out onto the surface. Faced with outpourings of extremism, the
only metaphors that come to mind are ugly ones. Human beings become hideous
when their faces and bodies are distorted by hate. That burning question mark still
hangs over the world as a banner proclaiming a Time of Grievances.

I had to admit to feeling threatened.

What do people do under threat? They retreat into a small group for safety. Where
could I find one? Not among people — even enlightened people — in Berlin, where I
had been living for almost twenty years. Berliners had other problems. Aside from
coping with reuniting a city divided by a wall for forty years, they are mostly German,
and their history dictates attitudes that I don’t share. As a foreigner, I felt isolated from
mainstream reactions here to this new global climate.

In the weeks after 11 September, jolted out of the comfortable irrelevance I had been
living in since the mid-90s, the helpless conversations around me became
unbearable. I retreated into writing poems. I wrote unstoppably, very fast, without
thinking what I was trying to say.
Later, when I read what I had written so hastily and spontaneously, I was struck by
the urgent tone, and realised I had been writing as a form of self-defence. I felt
attacked — in the first place, as a member of ‘Western society’. What I had seen as
instinctive or unquestionable values and norms were being thrown into question, and I
was being forced into declarations of affirmation and denial.
More than that, I felt challenged about a specific aspect of myself, a conflict-ridden
element I had come to regard as safely buried, relatively insignificant in my present
life and rarely worth conscious thought.

I felt threatened as a Jewess.

It was an emotion so surprising that it made me feel alienated from myself. Although I
suffer occasionally from dark prophetic dreams, my carefully nurtured scepticism is
regained and reinforced every morning by the first cup of coffee. For all my poetic
flights, deep down I see myself as an incorrigible rationalist. I laugh at New Age
mysticism and react allergically to ‘karma addicts’ clutching at bastardised versions of
Eastern cults. The realities of politics and economics are never far from my thoughts.
The poems I wrote in the aftermath of 11 September show me trying to apply all the
old techniques: irony, sarcasm, detachment and the like. But what actually filters
through is anger, confusion and resentment. Why should a bunch of murderers led by
a Muslim fanatic with megalomaniac tendencies and severe family problems throw
my worldview into question? My only consolation was that I shared this confusion with
so many others. Every day my e-mailbox was filled with chain letters and personal
messages from all over the world, asking questions and voicing doubts similar to

After the first round of mutual comforting, most of us switched off the hourly
newscasts, and daily life reasserted itself remarkably quickly; but that weird sense of
unease was still there — the feeling of being forced to re-examine something
fundamental. Maybe for me, approaching my 50th birthday, it coincided with the onset
of a new life phase — but that wasn’t enough of an explanation. Try as I might, I
couldn’t ignore the process of soul-searching all around me, fed by the mass media
with crash courses on Islam and never-ending reports on the global rise of religious

It was impossible for me to stay neutral. Present-day Islamic fundamentalism is
closely linked with the plight of the Palestinians and is often openly anti-Jewish, while
militant Jewish fundamentalism has its corresponding scapegoats and territorial
claims. I continually felt challenged and attacked as a Jewish person — and
sometimes deeply ashamed of Israeli government actions when they were justified in
terms of ‘survival of the Jews’.

Intellectually it’s easy to make the distinction between Jews and Israelis, and it’s
common for Diaspora Jews to distance themselves from Jews in Israel who support
hawkish leaders. But unless I renounce my Jewish origins — my family ties — I can’t
feign indifference to the conflict in the Middle East. I am close to many people who
have lost loved ones through the violence over the years. When a bomb blasts a bus
in Tel Aviv I can’t stop myself shuddering and hoping my aunt Rena is safe. She lives
in Tel Aviv and travels on buses there. When a bomb blasts a shop or restaurant in
Jerusalem I have to hope that my aunt Etta wasn’t out on one of her regular walks
through the city. I know too many victims of this conflict, like young men wrecked by
military service in the Israeli Army, or orphans who were babies when Palestinian
bombs blew up their parents.

It’s not difficult to understand the complacent neutrality or judgmental attitudes of
many Europeans of my generation and the next, who have grown up in relative peace
— but I can’t share it. They see those long-running conflicts left over from the 20th
century (Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Cyprus, the Middle East etc.) as tiresome,
unpleasant, often puzzling blots on the smooth surface of an otherwise civilised or
‘developing’ world. If only the antagonists would hand over their weapons and sit
down together at round tables to talk things out…

If only. But after all the pontificating that followed the attacks on the World Trade
Center, I was left with a burning internal contradiction: anger at how terrorism was
being legitimated by pointing the finger at Israel — thus involving me as a Jewess —
and fear and defensiveness whenever Jews were attacked. My instincts were telling
me it was a dangerous time for Jews. Could I trust these gut feelings? Where did they
come from anyway? Ancient, long-buried emotions were forcing up to the surface,
however much I tried to repress them.

Writing poems and engaging in debate are necessary but not sufficient remedies for
this kind of mental turmoil. I had to scratch through my own veneer of assimilation
and integration and try to find answers to the question: what does it mean to be a
Jewish woman living in the rich heartlands of Europe in the 21st century? And I had to
start where I live and work: in Berlin, which was the capital of the monstrous
dictatorship that tried to annihilate the Jews of Europe in the last century.

The story of this quest begins and ends with poetry and song.

… As a child I was malleable, as an adult I turned to poetry,
a monster tottering stiffly towards some undefined target,
under my tongue glows my father’s tatty inscription,
while I spit the millennium in small balls of paper back at the world.

Ottó Órban*

* ‘The Golem’, in Ottó Órban, The Blood of the Walsungs, Selected Poems 1993, p. 93
Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle-upon-Tyne/Corvina Books, Budapest


A Renegade Jewess         Part 1 Ch. 1                  © Karen Margolis            Berlin 2009

PART ONE: A Reluctant Jewess

1. The Homeopathic Cure:  First Dose — Let me Keep my Esther

Leaving the Berlin Ring motorway at an unfamiliar exit, we drive down wide tree-lined
avenues with grassy midways. It is a cold, misty Friday evening in March and the
local high streets with their brightly lit shop windows are almost deserted. Zehlendorf,
in the southwest of the city, has never been the place for nightlife. The ornate 19th-
century villas, the freshly-renovated façades of 1930s and ’50s housing blocks, the
big gardens and plentiful green spaces proclaim a bourgeois residential area that
seems untouched by the post-Wall era. To us, visitors from the former no man’s land
in the very heart of Berlin, living on the border between ‘little Turkey’ in Kreuzberg and
concrete slab housing left over from the Communist era, the immaculate, picture-
postcard atmosphere is eerie, as if the city we live in has areas so foreign they make
us feel like tourists.
But even here the past is present. Every now and then, set back from the road,
behind the trees we catch glimpses of neat rows of buildings with small square
windows and flat roofs: military housing, a legacy of the American occupation that
began with the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in 1945 and ended in 1994. Not far
away is Clayallee, former home of the US Army Berlin headquarters, once a miniature
US town with its offices, sports grounds, McDonald’s and PX shops; but that’s all
history now. To document it, the former troops’ cinema, Outpost, has been
transformed into the Allies’ Museum, one of the city’s numerous memorials to the
occupation and division of Berlin in the 20th century.
We turn into Middenweg, a big leafy avenue whose solid old trees tower over us, and
start looking for house numbers. The buildings are wide apart, separated by lawns
and gardens; many are fenced off and bristling with electronic security devices. On
the right we can see the ugly square tower of a church. It can’t be there, I say,
laughing. I must have misread the house number on the invitation.
Maybe we won’t find the place. Do I really want to go anyway? Of the two feelings I
had when I set off, reluctance is starting to outweigh curiosity. But having come so
far, we might as well try.
We turn back and cross the main road again, still searching. None of the buildings
looks remotely like a synagogue. But driving back toward the church, we spot four
men standing in a huddle under a tree in the garden. Two of them are uniformed
policemen. Behind them, we can see figures silhouetted in the lighted glass-fronted
foyer to the side of the tower. So it must be the right place. Thomas parks the car in
the parking lot across the road and we walk toward the church.
The policemen look at us with boredom rather than suspicion as we walk up the
driveway. Synagogue guard duty is part of their Friday evening timetable. To get into
any Jewish service or event in Berlin, you have to run a police gauntlet. Security
guards and uniformed officers outside, and airport-like searches inside, where you
surrender your pocket contents (my precious Swiss Army officer’s knife is inevitably
deposited in a plastic bag and ticketed to be retrieved on departure), and have to
pass through the electronic gateway without provoking embarrassing beeps — these
are the preparatory rituals visitors have to undergo to gain admission to Jewish
institutions. By the time you get inside, the relief at having mastered all the barriers
gives a sense of being in a refuge or enclave.
Tonight I have been careful to leave the Swiss Army knife at home, but there’s
actually no search squad awaiting us at the entrance. The foyer is part of an annexe
built at the side of the original church in the plain, functional style of modern meeting
halls; at the back wall are tiered literature racks and tables, a perfect display of
denominational equality with one side offering magazines, pamphlets and leaflets on
Catholicism and the other side on Protestantism. An open cardboard box on the table
by the door holds a stack of small prayer books bound in dark red linen with parallel
text in Hebrew and German. The inside front covers are stamped with the words:
Property of Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue. Please return after the service. Next to the
books is a pile of simple black yarmulkes or kippas, the obligatory skullcaps worn by
men at prayer. Thomas puts on his own kippa, a souvenir from a Jewish funeral in
New York.
Opposite, people are wandering in and out of double doors thrown wide open to a big
room with rows of chairs that look ready for a meeting — any meeting. The foyer is
filling up with people greeting each other. Shabbat shalom. Good evening. Gut
Shabbas. Erev tov. We find the rabbi, who shakes hands warmly, pleased that we’ve
responded to his invitation. — But I never expected to come to a Friday evening
synagogue service in a church, I say. The rabbi, a mild-looking bespectacled man of
medium height with receding hairline and a slightly weary expression, has recently
passed his rabbinical examinations. An enthusiastic historian of Jewish life in Berlin,
he tells us that the church was the multi-denominational house of worship for US
Army personnel during the American occupation of Berlin. For many years his father
was the Jewish chaplain here for Jewish-American servicemen and civilians.
Now the surroundings fall into place. The architecture, the interior decor, the very
smell of it exudes the atmosphere of barracks.

This doesn’t bother me. For much of their history, Jews couldn’t afford to be choosy.
The Jews of the Bible carried the Torah scrolls around in a tent and prayed together
under the open sky. Jews in captivity huddled together secretly to pray wherever they
could — sometimes silently for fear of discovery. Even today, this bleak shabby hall
and the police guard outside would seem a luxury to Jews in many parts of the world.
Yet if only it were less strange, and a little nearer to my memories of a synagogue.
Attendance will be good tonight, the rabbi says, because of the Purim party. As he
speaks, a little girl in fancy-dress costume races past, almost tripping him up. He
smiles benevolently. Purim is a festival for children. The lack of pomp and traditional
decor here will be compensated by the congregation’s offspring. The future
generation signifies hope, freshness and continuity. Their presence is worth more
than pomp and ostentation. Besides, even stiff self-conscious Germans unbend a
little when children are allowed to roam freely among them.
After hanging up our coats on the wall rack inside the big room and taking our seats
on the stackable wooden chairs, we finally see some familiar trappings. Up front is a
big menorah with glaring electric light bulbs, a silver twin candelabra with the two
lighted Shabbat candles, and in the centre — flanked by two wooden pulpits like mute
pygmy guards of honour — the Ark behind a dark red velvet curtain. It is embroidered
with the traditional Hebrew legend in gold, and underneath, the donor’s name and
date of donation.

This is more like the real thing — it recalls immediately the square wooden clock with
Hebrew letters for numerals above the ark in the South Hampstead shul I attended
regularly as a girl forty years ago in London. When I used to get bored with the
repetitive service and trying to will the hands of the clock to move faster, I would
meditate on the clock’s donors, immortalised on the plaque at its base, and my eyes
would stray to the names of the providers of the Ark curtains. Almost every object in
that synagogue was engraved or embroidered with names: the silver wine cups, the
candelabra, the carved pulpit and the best seats. Jews like openly acknowledging
generosity, and at times they did it with mercantile precision. I recall another London
synagogue, built in the East End at the turn of the 20th century. In the 1970s it was
converted into the Half Moon Theatre after most of the local immigrant Jews had
moved up the social scale and the Pakistanis took over the neighbourhood. A stage
was built for theatre shows, but the dedicatory plaques on the walls commemorating
deceased loved ones were left intact. They listed not only names and dates but also
the amount donated. In memory of my beloved wife Milly Washkinsky: £1.50.

Have I come to Middenweg merely for an exercise in memory, the opportunity to
wallow in a past so far away that it has become an enduring myth in my imagination?
Is this pure self-indulgence? Actually I’m hoping for something more: a confirmation of
my prejudices, a justification for staying away from this religion for so long. I’ve
embarked on a homeopathic treatment with small doses of poison — not snake and
plant toxins, but contact with Jews as a community, the remembered rituals that still
haunt me now. Fractional doses of synagogue services, cultural events and fund-
raising bazaars may eventually accumulate to make my system reject the sickness —
the malady of being Jewish and not being able to decide what this means to me.
In the synagogues of my childhood I never had to ask. Being Jewish meant climbing
the stairs to the ladies’ gallery with my mother and sisters and watching the men
below perform the familiar rituals, their heads bobbing in their skull caps, their fingers
twiddling endlessly with the fringes of their prayer shawls. The stripes on my father’s
tallit were blue. He told me this was the traditional colour, from a fish dye. Why did
most of the other men have a black-striped tallit? They come from a different tradition,
my father explained. Their melodies for the old songs were different too. Judaism is
as varied as all the places where the Jews have lived. And each time, they leave
something behind and take something with them when they go.

When my father spoke Yiddish, I could hear the traces of Lithuania he took with him
when he left at the age of six. When he smiled happily or spoke English with the
lingering traces of his broad-vowelled accent, I could hear the voices and see the sun
and sea and wide-open spaces of South Africa, where I spent my childhood until we
left in 1961. When I heard my father’s voice later, I heard echoes of the toils of
migration and saw the pleasant streets of Hampstead where he lived for over 40
years, and his quiet pride at having made it from an immigrant to a comfortably off
senior citizen. My father — whose boy’s voice sang his bar mitzvah portion so
beautifully that his mother dreamed of seeing him as a chazzan, a cantor; the voice I
used to try and make out among the others as I sat in the gallery every Saturday
morning at Shabbat service and the women chattered and chattered, till Reverend
Bronsky tapped loudly on his lectern and demanded “Quiet in the ladies’ gallery,
please!” My father later became only an occasional worshipper. Weddings, funerals
and bar mitzvahs were almost the only synagogue services he attended in his last
As for me, I haven’t entered a Jewish house of God for years — except for tourism or
exhibitions, or to buy greeting cards for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, at
bookshops in visitors’ centres. I never lost track of the high holydays; in my mind the
Jewish calendar has always ran parallel with the secular one. But I felt uneasy
whenever I thought of going to a service. Above all, I wasn’t prepared to submit to
ancient discrimination as a woman.

In this makeshift synagogue I can see right away there is no ladies’ gallery; you can
choose your seat regardless of sex. I will be staring at the backs of men’s heads
rather than seeing them from a vantage point above.

In London there was also a choice: between Liberal shuls with mixed seating where
girls were allowed to celebrate bat mitzvahs, and Conservative shuls where we sat
separated from our men folk and girls never got to hold the Torah. My parents chose
the Conservative. Each time we climbed the wide steps to our local synagogue in
Hampstead with its bleak mid-20th-century ecclesiastical architecture, passing the
groups of people waiting for friends and exchanging business or family gossip, each
time we entered the big hall with the dedicated clock and coverings, the plush seats
with donors’ names on little bronze plaques and the stairs up both sides to the ladies’
gallery, we were plunged from the streets of swinging Sixties London into the dark
ages of East European shtetls and yeshivas. Too much of it was like age-old
caricatures of the Jew, trying to cling to a lost world that had already been swept
away by an unspeakable event still within living memory of most of the congregation.
Many of the women were like permanent mourners, dressed in long black crepe
dresses — like the old lady my father met there by chance one day, a former midwife
who remembered delivering him and his twin brother into the world back in Memel,
Lithuania, in 1927.

Every visit to South Hampstead synagogue conjured up ghosts. Family ghosts were
one thing: during the prayers for the dead I could think of my Lithuanian grandparents
who died in Jerusalem, and my mother’s father whose family came from Riga, whom I
had hardly known (he died in Cape Town when I was a young child), and I could
watch my parents in the act of remembrance. But the ghosts of all those six million,
among them my father’s uncles, aunts and cousins from Lithuania whom he barely
remembered except from his mother’s photo album, all murdered in 1941 by the
Nazis or Lithuanians in the first wave of mass exterminations in Eastern Europe, the
relatives whose fate I never even knew of as a child… and then all the other people’s
relatives, all those victims…
The effort of abstract mourning was very great. The burden of collective victimisation
was too heavy. Beneath the surface was a special guilt at not being able to mourn
genuinely, not being grateful enough for having escaped the slaughter and simply
being alive. No wonder I felt uneasy in a synagogue.

There are still only a few people seated in the big room at Middenweg. Thomas and I
choose seats at the side near the coat rack and the entrance. (You never know when
you might need to escape discreetly.) In the row in front of us, a beautiful woman with
abundant black hair half-tamed by a mass of brightly coloured hairgrips is trying to
calm her two small daughters. The elder girl is feeling elegant in her white party
dress. The younger has a pair of shimmering gauzy angel’s wings attached to her
back that keep slipping off as she wriggles against the chair. Whooping with delight,
she is smearing red lipstick all over her face. I offer her a pocket mirror so she can
see the result; satisfied, she passes it back, and offers to smear my lips with the
mangled lipstick as well.
The noise level in the foyer is rising as people trickle into the room, greeting each
other with handshakes and hugs and kisses and loud appreciation of the children’s
costumes. One little boy has a Harry Potter outfit including magician’s hat and
broomstick. He races around the room, showing it off. Later I found the broomstick
propped forlornly against the wall, its contemporary magic outdone by the old Purim
story. The little boy had swapped it for a plastic rattle whose raucous tones could
chase away the evil threatening his people.
Purim comes at a convenient time for Berlin’s Jewish mothers. Most of the
kindergartens and schools celebrate carnival in the period before Ash Wednesday.
The costumes for school parades and fancy-dress parties double neatly for Purim.
This evening, of course, there are the customary Queen Esthers, Mordecais and
Hamans — but they are outnumbered by angels, cowboys and other figures of fancy.
One little boy is covered from top to toe with green sprouts, like a woodland sprite or
dancer at the rites of spring. The ancient rituals and retelling of traditional stories
inevitably hark back to the earliest, natural religions. Purim is a delightful foretaste of
Pesach (Passover), the great spring festival of pilgrimage.
Thomas’s nervousness (is he the only goy here?) evaporates at the sight of all these
boisterous children comparing costumes, oblivious of the room as a place of worship.
He beams at the kids and exchanges smiles with proud parents. The seats are filling
up now. Somehow the parents manage to persuade the children to sit down. But the
noise and chatter continues as the rabbi enters in his robes and prayer shawl,
followed by his son the trainee cantor, and a choir of four women whose leader sits
down at the portable organ.
“A women’s choir!” I whisper to Thomas. That would have been sacrilege in the
synagogues of my youth. I should be pleased that even here the women’s movement
has had its impact — but I feel disturbed, rather the same way I felt about Margaret
Thatcher or women’s banks. Equality within patriarchy and its socio-economic
systems was never my goal. Since religion was created by men and generally used to
suppress women and sustain patriarchal attitudes, I always believed feminism should
help to break down misogynist religions, not shore them up by joining in and being co-
opted. Anyway, it takes time to adjust my ears to female voices singing in place of the
deep male tones of melodies and chants that accompanied my childhood. It just
doesn’t sound right.

Inwardly, I scold myself for the retrograde wish that everything should stay as I
remember it. I can’t expect this room at Middenweg to compensate for my lost
‘But that was in another country / And besides, the wench is dead.’

Further along our row, the excitement and the waiting prove too much for a little boy
dressed in black as Haman. Perched on his father’s knee, he is weeping miserably,
smearing the paint from his evil black moustache all over his cheeks as he pummels
his face with his fists. Maybe somebody has told him that Haman is the baddy of the
story, and he’ll come to a sticky end before it’s all over.
The rabbi stands at the lectern, waiting for the noise to die down. When it sinks low
enough for his soft voice to be heard, he begins the service. Some members of the
congregation mutter along with him. His son Alex is still a student cantor, his melodies
and rhythm a little shaky, but the energetic women’s choir and the older worshippers
help smooth out the creases with the confidence of long practice. What jars on me is
the portable organ. What always delighted me in the synagogues of my youth were
the male voices singing a capella.
The text of the liturgy is not very familiar. As a young girl I seldom attended Friday
evening services. We children generally stayed at home with my mother while she
cooked the evening meal to be ready when my father came back from shul. Our job
was to lay the table, with the candles set up to be lighted and the silver Kiddush cup
at my father’s place — and then to wait. The longer the service, the more hungrily we
waited. Later, in my early teens, I sometimes accompanied my father because I felt
sorry for him having to walk to shul and back on his own. Sometime after that he
started going by car, parking around the corner so that the fromm worshippers
wouldn’t catch him cheating.

On Saturday mornings the whole family went to Shabbat service, all setting off
together for the half-hour walk to the synagogue. Around us, the rest of the world was
busy with weekend shopping. I used to wonder if we were conspicuous in our smart
clothes and best shoes, walking in a family group like we often saw Christians doing
on their way to Sunday prayers or baptisms, weddings and funerals.

Immersed in memories as the service begins on this Friday evening at Middenweg, I
get lost trying to follow the Hebrew. Some of the melodies are different to those I
learnt all those years ago in London in shul and at Sunday cheder classes. Back then,
the ritual and the rhythmic head-bobbing and shawl-tugging as the men became
absorbed in prayer seemed natural. I was part of the flow. Now, part of me is
struggling not to be.

Do I want to join in or keep my distance? Can I feel comfortable either way?

Beside me I can feel Thomas trying to absorb it all. His bewilderment, his
nervousness at being an outsider suddenly makes me feel close to these strange
people. I share something with them that he doesn’t, whether I want it or not.
Instinctively I take his hand to reaffirm what we share together.
We all stand up and turn our backs to the Ark, looking towards the West, the place of
the setting sun and the Western (Wailing) Wall, symbolic site of the ruins of the
Second Temple. Each religion has its own unique geographical centre, its holy
shrines and places of pilgrimage. Sitting down and standing up, we’re performing
movements typical of religious worship the world over. We could all be in school, with
the headmaster and teachers up front leading us at morning assembly. The children
here are lulled into soporific contentment by the chanting and swaying, and
impressed by the compliance of the adults around them. Stand up, sit down; stand
up, sit down… they know this routine from school or kindergarten.

At my school in Hampstead, London, the Jewish girls used to file out of morning
assembly to go to our own separate prayers. One-third of that exclusive girls’ school
was Jewish. There was an unofficial quota to protect the school from being filled with
the daughters of Jewish families from the locality. Apart from the Shema, our prayers
were in English, which taught me to love the translations of the psalms as pure

The little congregation at Middenweg is sitting down again. The rabbi switches from
Hebrew to read one of the psalms in German. I am surprised at how beautiful it
sounds. The texts may be impure and may have been mistranslated, misinterpreted,
disputed and even perverted for political ends — but the poetry of the Bible is so
powerful, it seems to come through in any language.

Ein Psalm; ein Lied für den Sabbat:
Schön ist es, dem Ewigen zu danken,
deinen Namen zu singen, Höchster!…

(A psalm, a song for the Sabbath day:
It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praises unto thy name, O
Most High!
To shew forth thy loving kindness in the morning, and thy faithfulness every night,
With an instrument of ten strings, and with the psaltery; with a solemn sound upon the

A harp would be welcome here. The portable electric organ is a poor match for the
music of the words.

We stand again to say Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. The names of the Holocaust
victims being commemorated this week are read out. And then the names of recent
victims of terrorist murderers in Israel, for us to mourn along with our own deceased
loved ones. As the rabbi reads out these names, the hall is briefly draped in solemnity
and utter silence. Some faces show pain and grief. Like me, many of the
congregation have relatives and friends in Israel. In the past few weeks we have
become familiar with lurid daily TV images of screaming sirens, ambulances, police
cordons around blood-soaked stretchers in Israeli cities. Saturday evenings have
become a regular nightmare as the TV news reports Palestinian assaults on Jewish
civilians — often teenagers and young people — out on the town to celebrate the end
of Shabbat. The guerrilla war since the start of the second Intifida is developing into a
bizarre ritual. The mounting roll call of fatal statistics on both sides has a deadly
But when the rabbi reads out the names of Jewish victims in Israel in this spartan
house of prayer in southwest Berlin, he rescues them from anonymity. Hebrew names
have a music all their own. Many are directly from the Bible, evoking associations with
well-known figures and scenes. Their meanings are easily identifiable through the
spoken language. The names are often traditional, passed on from grandparents to
grandchildren. In my family we all have a Hebrew name registered in the synagogue
as well as the anglicised name on our birth certificates. The names of the dead
Israelis recall words or people we know. And like the names on lists of Shoah victims,
they remind us of shared persecution, a common fate. If we were in Israel — and
Israel remains an ultimate possibility for every Jew, even if he or she would rather go
anywhere else first — we could also be blown up in a pizzeria by brainwashed young
men and women who believe in themselves as holy martyrs.

The Jews who died in Israel are remembered quietly and sadly here. They are
certainly not hailed as martyrs. They didn’t set out to sacrifice their lives. They simply
wanted to go shopping, eat out or take a bus. They were tragically caught up in a war

that started before many of them were born. It takes a lot more than that to earn the title of martyr. And a good deal more than making a home video for posthumousglory, strapping an explosives belt around your waist and sneaking into a crowded
place in enemy territory with hatred in your heart and visions of paradise and
immortality in your mind.

I realise that if it weren’t for what is going on now in Israel, I would probably not be
here in this strange little shul in Middenweg. Today, Israel makes it impossible to
avoid the reality of being Jewish.

Tonight at Middenweg, the Shabbat evening service is augmented by passages from
the Book of Esther to mark the Purim feast, which fell earlier in the week. The rabbi
introduces the story briefly. Everybody knows it, he says; so why is it still important to
retell it and celebrate Purim every year? One reason is illustrated by a postcard he
got this week from a woman who wrote that she would never forget her role as Queen
Esther in the Purim play at nursery school. Purim passes on an unforgettable story
heard in childhood, like the fairytales and nursery rhymes of our native cultures. The
despotic wilful king; the unloved queen; the beautiful (and intelligent) young girl who
takes her place as representative and saviour of her people, the Chosen People; the
entrepreneurial uncle; the baddy who wants to wipe out Our Side. Yes, Esther is the
heroine of an eternal story — and a great role model for girls. (Many centuries after
Esther, in the Middle Ages, the Christians recognised the gap in their history, bowed
to pressure from saintly princesses and emerging women’s movements within the
Church, and canonised Jeanne d’Arc to represent a female figure of Esther’s stature.)

It was I who sent the rabbi the postcard about playing Esther in kindergarten. I can
still see the white dress I wore, the tinfoil tiara, the paste diamond bracelets and
necklace: a costume that owed more to the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II than
the biblical Esther. Four years old at a Hebrew nursery school in a small town near
Johannesburg, and I had already joined the ranks of biblical heroines and royalty.
Yes, Purim is a festival to remember.

Plastic rattles are being distributed down the rows to all the children. The rabbi starts
reading the story. “When I read out the name Haman,” he instructs, “shake your
rattles vigorously”. Some children can’t wait that long. They have been patient during
all the incomprehensible singing and sadness. Now here’s the party they were
promised. The video team recording the event for local TV starts moving the camera
on squeaky wheels up and down the side of the hall to capture the children’s faces.
As he reads, the rabbi frowns with concentration to shut out the growing din. Every
time he is about to pronounce the name Haman, he looks up as a signal to the rattle-
shakers. I stamp my feet on the floor like the congregation in my shul used to do. The
little boy dressed as Haman has quite forgotten his grief and is swinging his rattle
gleefully, not at all worried that the racket is directed against the character he

As a child, I learned early on that Haman and Hitler were one and the same. Haman
stands for everybody who ever tried to wipe out the Jews. None of them ever
succeeded. We have survived to tell the tale and at Purim we have a chance to vent
our feelings and vilify their names. The stamping and shouting and the bitter-sweet
taste of hamantaschen, the poppy seed cakes shaped like Haman’s three-cornered
hat (a later embellishment of the story)… all that reminded me of Haman as a figure
like Napoleon or Chaplin’s Great Dictator — nasty, ugly, despotic yet deeply absurd.
A man whose hat you could eat. The poppy seeds always got stuck between my
teeth, little black bugs that I spat out later with the toothpaste and watched as they
swirled away down the drainpipe. There. That’s the last of him.

The end of the Purim story this evening is accompanied by the smell of pita bread
and spinach pastries being warmed up in the narrow kitchen at the back of the hall.
As soon as the service is over the chairs are stacked up to make space; we gather
around a table in front of the buffet, where we sing together while thumbnail plastic
beakers of syrupy New York kosher wine are passed around and the rabbi blesses
the fruit of the vine. Amid murmurs of lechayim, the traditional toast, glasses are
drunk in a single gulp while Alex the cantor blesses and cuts the challah, the plaited
bread loaf. Musicians are already setting up instruments; as soon as they start
playing, the children join hands in a ring with adults, singing and dancing. The video
team’s cables get tangled up between the dancers and the queue for the buffet.
Berlin’s best-known Jewish restaurant has done the catering with dishes you might
find anywhere in the Middle East: hummus, falafel, aubergine salad, pita bread…
anything except the gefilte fish and latkes, chopped liver, pickled herring and
heymische cucumbers of East European Jewry from the synagogue buffets of my
youth. Israel was a young country back then in the 1950s and ’60s; the Yiddish
culinary traditions perpetuated by New York’s kosher delis still dominated the world’s
idea of Jewish food. Since then Israel’s Oriental cuisine has spread to the western
Diaspora and become the norm at many a Kiddush, wedding or bar mitzvah.

On a side table are plates laden with hamantaschen baked from an unfamiliar recipe:
little short-pastry triangles filled with poppy seed or mashed dates. Rather dry and
chewy, they bear no resemblance to the light delicacies my Lithuanian grandmother
baked for Purim, nor to the Polish versions we waited eagerly for my father to bring
home from Grodzinski’s Jewish bakery on Haverstock Hill in Hampstead: three-
cornered flaky pastries brushed with egg-white to give them a shine, with tiny
coloured sugar balls scattered on top that contrasted with the moist black poppy seed
inside. I feel disappointed. Ever since I got the invitation to the Purim party I have
been praising hamantaschen to Thomas.
In retrospect, I wonder why eating Haman’s hat, the headgear of the original
genocidal murderer, should have been such a great treat. If you take the symbolism
literally, those moist black poppy seeds could be brain matter and the charming little
cakes part of a cannibalistic ritual.

The music is getting louder — a mixture of traditional liturgical tunes, Israeli folklore
and klezmer. Everything here is a mixture. Ancient and modern. A story told
alternately in German and Hebrew. People chatting in many tongues.

From the outside, being Jewish might seem like a single defining characteristic, a
yes-or-no; but inside you’re constantly surprised by its rampant eclecticism, its
defiance of categorisation. The fifty-odd people here come in all shapes and sizes
from all over Central and Eastern Europe and the wider world: other regions of
Germany, Israel, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, the United States, Britain, the Baltic
states… Whether they look Jewish or not depends on your expectations. But most of
them know the songs, and are dancing, tapping their feet or clapping as they sing
In the foyer, where conversation is possible, the rabbi has just changed back into
street clothes. He introduces me to another man as the person who was Queen
Esther in nursery school. “But that was long ago,” he adds laughing.
‘But that was in another country…’
“Yes, and far away — in South Africa,” I add. “We emigrated to London when I was
And I have lived in Berlin for almost 20 years now… and besides, the wench is dead.

Suddenly I am the wench of my early teenage years again, standing in the foyer of
the Hampstead synagogue with my father, reunited after the separation during the
service. He is lapping up compliments for having such lovely children (making him
temporarily forget the home battleground of the generation gap), and praise for
having read his portion of the Torah so well; and I’m seething with annoyance that I
never get a chance to hold the sacred scroll and touch its twin crowns with the
dangling bells that chime as they sway to the singing, and caress the gold-
embroidered midnight-blue velvet covers, and walk in circles cradling them in my
arms like the boys do. How soft they must feel… I want to lift off the crowns, then the
covers, as carefully and tenderly as the men do, like a bridegroom on the wedding
night in an old poem, undressing his bride for the first time. I want to take out the
Torah and unroll it from the wooden poles and look closely at the black letters of
Hebrew handwriting on the scroll.
It might be written by men, but it is a book. There is no biological reason why women
shouldn’t read it, just as there is no biological reason why women should always do
the washing-up. And it’s not a ten-ton weight, either. It weighs less than a child, and
it’s a precious object, a jewel, its velvet cover frequently embroidered by women’s
hands; holding it demands delicacy and care. There’s no earthly reason why a woman
shouldn’t pick it up and walk around with it.

But if you read it, you can find ample explanation as to why women are not to be
entrusted with it.

Standing in the Middenweg foyer, I tell the rabbi about a British woman rabbi I heard
talking about the Book of Esther on BBC World radio the previous day. She insisted it
was important to contextualise the story. In her view there are two basic flaws: first,
the narrative is hostile to women. They are presented as objects of manipulation by
men for political ends. Secondly, the ultimate message is about violence and
revenge. After Haman has been defeated and consigned to his fate, King Ahasuerus
asks his beloved wife Esther for her heart’s desire. She replies: A day of festivities for
my people so they can take their revenge on their enemies. When that day has
passed, the King asks her again for her heart’s desire. She replies: Another day of
festivities, during which Haman’s ten sons shall be hanged upon the gallows and our
remaining enemies slaughtered.
All this, according to the British lady rabbi, shows that the Book of Esther doesn’t fit
the modern age. The time has come, she insisted, to rewrite the story to maximise its
feminine potential and minimise its male aggression.

Listening to this, I was already mentally composing the revised version.
Instead of the white princess-gown and glittering tiara I wore as Queen Esther in my
first role at nursery school, I am wearing green-and-brown army camouflage gear with
a machine gun slung casually over my shoulder. If my parents had immigrated to
Israel, as my father once dreamed of, I would have served in the Army like my
cousins who were children when they fled with their parents from Lithuania to
Palestine. In Esther’s shoes (or rather, laced knee-length combat boots), I would have
snapped my fingers at King Ahasuerus and Uncle Mordecai, and mobilised the
women of Israel to defend our people alongside the men.
But once we were safe and secure, my Queen Esther wouldn’t demand slaughter and
retribution. She would find a female solution to the conflict instead of the cockfighting
that men call war. There would be no bloodbaths and no mass graves. (My maternal
grandmother Fay, who emigrated to Israel from South Africa at the age of 66, always
used to maintain that the only way to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was to fill
the Knesset entirely with women.)
And if a sweet remembrance is necessary for the Purim party, maybe hamantaschen
with their cannibalistic implications should be phased out in favour of… apple pie?
Jaffa cakes?
— But then again, something inside me objects to this rewriting.
The Queen Esther in the white dress is a precious memory of my childhood. It was
special because it was so far from life as I knew it, so remote from the suburban
houses and neat front gardens of our small-town life in the Transvaal. It is a story first
told thousands of years ago that has not lost any of its sound and fury because the
elemental struggle it symbolises is enacted afresh every year. Dressed up as Esther,
I was not only playing a Biblical queen, I was replaying my mother and grandmother
and all the women of past generations who have dreamed of wearing regal trappings
and achieving immortality by saving their people. Esther was my Jeanne d’Arc minus
the martyrdom, my sheroine, a fitting role model for a girl who would grow up to
march in the streets of London for the liberation of women.

Esther’s story has been written time and again, but never more tenderly and
humorously than in Itzik Manger’s Yiddish version, The Tailor’s Megille, written in
1936, three years before he left his native Bukovina in flight from the Nazis.

Queen Esther doesn’t have armies or power,
But she lifts her little finger, that’s all.
And when she tickles the king with that finger,
Armies and evil can fall.

Meanwhile, in the early 21st century, a woman rabbi was telling us in all seriousness
to rewrite the story for the present. The way she wanted to do it is symptomatic of our
times. The modern-day Queen Esther would be a perfect example of political
correctness. She would not abuse her power to massacre her enemies, she would
pardon them graciously and send them on socio-psychological rehabilitation
courses… She would disavow nationalism, racism, patriotism and all the other
prohibited ideologies. In other words, she would be the perfect, politically acceptable
role model for kindergarten children in today’s Europe.
Thus rewritten, the story collapses, losing its psychological credibility. An Esther
reshaped to suit our present criteria would never have allowed herself to be
manipulated in the first place by her uncle, husband or any other man. After seeing
how the despotic king summarily disposed of his first wife, Vashti, because she
refused to let him denigrate her before the courtiers, our modern-day Esther would
have been roused to female solidarity, or at least taken warning of her own possible
fate. She would never have obeyed Mordecai and married the chauvinist king.
The Esther of the Bible played out her role within quite different parameters whose
rigidity was non-negotiable for a woman of that time. Her sheroism consisted in taking
the only path open to a woman of her time and operating skilfully within those

Discussing this in the foyer at Middenweg, the rabbi agrees that Esther should be left
alone and not subjected to textbook purification. All the same, as a rabbi he is in the
business of re-interpreting the Bible on a regular basis, so he doesn’t dismiss new
readings out of hand. However, he adds, what’s important to him about the Esther
story here and now is the idea that evil really exists in human beings. If Queen Esther
personifies the Good, Haman is the essence of the Bad. The little boys in the Purim
play, dressed up as Haman with threatening black moustaches painted on their
smooth faces and licence to be rowdy, embody the incarnation of evil. Swinging
rattles and stamping our feet at the mention of Haman’s name is a way of
materialising this evil and confronting it. Re-telling the story every year allows for
catharsis with a touch of communal exorcism — driving out the devil in society and
our selves.

So may it be in the world forever!
May the good all flourish and the evil fall!

Itzik Manger, Die Megille/The Tailor’s Megille, The Complete Songbook,
Megille-Verlag, Dresden, 1998

The Book of Esther is a story of survival in a time of absolutism, a story of brute force,
emotion, and very limited individual options. Political correctness is a luxury of the
advanced industrial countries of our times. Applied retrospectively, it saps the vitality
of myths and fables. It robs Esther of her glory as a saviour of her people.
It robs me of my dream of female heroism.
Everyone needs heroes moulded to their wishes. Girls especially need heroines; and
Conservative Jewish girls more than many others, because it offers a path out of their
rigidly patriarchal religious practice.
Let me keep my Esther.

The big room at Middenweg is filled with the sounds of Israeli folk music. The ring of
dancers has widened. It looks much like the dancing I remember from all the weddings, bar mitzvahs and cheder parties I ever attended. There were so many
parties, they mingle in my mind; I can’t remember specific occasions now, only that
the food and drink, the music, the dancing were always the same. And here it is
again: traditional folk music that sets you humming to tunes you didn’t know you still
remembered. You catch yourself fishing in the depths of memory for lost phrases that
surface in small elusive bites, slippery and wriggling. You’re singing along because
you can’t help it — the pitch and rhythm are designed to catch even tone deaf ears;
and now you’re tapping your feet even if you can’t recall the dance steps.
But the sudden flush of excitement I feel is definitely not nostalgia. There’s no way I
want to be back in that time of non-freedom, the time of obligatory Shabbat services
and Purim parties. It’s far more a sense of wonder at what the mind retains.

Consciously you can forget, subconsciously you can repress memories that don’t fit
your present picture of yourself. But the words of a song, a melody, the pattern of a
dance will light up a corner where you have dusted all that unwanted stuff away, and
send you searching there. Fine particles of the past fill the air. I sneeze. Ah! — the
homeopathic treatment is having its effect. I am sneezing out the stuffed-up passages
of the years, and it clears my head.

Relieved, I feel confirmed that the only remaining link I have with this religion is my
past. Why do we celebrate Purim? — so that children in fancy dress can remember it
all their lives. Yes, I can remember it fondly; but I am no more susceptible to God now
than I was when I arrived here this evening. I am still every bit a reluctant Jewess.

Yet beware of passing on those little homeopathic pills prescribed for your specific
ailment to other people. They may lead to unintended symptoms.

Driving home, Thomas is elated by the party mood. “It was great,” he says. “It almost
makes me want to convert.”

Convert? — I ask scornfully. That’s just naive philo-Semitism, an irritating malady that
afflicts many Germans of Thomas’s generation. Their fathers fought in Hitler’s armies
and were complicit in mass murder and Nazi terror, or turned a blind eye to it. People
with philo-Semitic tendencies annoy me because they love Jews — and I don’t,
necessarily. There would be a good deal less philo-Semitism in Germany if there
were more Jews here.

Convert? — learn the Torah in Hebrew and all the 613 commandments governing
everyday life; keep a kosher kitchen and don’t do your weekend shopping on
Saturday because you have to keep the Sabbath?
Convert? — spend your time trying to convince people that Jews can be made, not
just born?

Convert? — have your adult foreskin cut to forge the bond with God that you missed
on the eighth day because you were born into a Protestant family?

Do you really mean it? I ask Thomas. Do you really mean that a single trip to the
synagogue for Purim has persuaded you to embrace what I have spent so long trying
to get away from? — Or do you think becoming Jewish will bring you closer to me?
Isn’t it the difference between us that is important? I’m not looking for a reflection from
inside. I need a perspective from outside.

Thomas doesn’t appreciate how lucky he is to be born into a Protestant family in
Christian-dominated Europe. He enjoys the unquestioned security of being part of a
well-established majority that easily tolerates his blithe indifference to religion. His few
childhood brushes with the church have left him almost untouched. Christmas,
Easter, Ascension Day, Whitsun, the great festivals of the Christian calendar (all
culled from Judaism and skilfully embedded in the emergent rebel religion) are simply
leisure opportunities for him: secularised national holidays whose origins can be
ignored. As a child, he never had to feel excluded, because he was born into the
dominant culture. Chosen people are minorities; the majority needs no justification for
its rituals and they are generously offered to one and all in the guise of universal
experience (if only mass shopping sprees). You don’t have to be an observant
Christian to have a Christmas tree or painted Easter eggs. And you don’t have to
renounce or sacrifice anything to join in. You can be born a Christian and have your
tinsel and your atheism, and nobody will ask awkward questions.

Being Jewish isn’t just a Purim party, either. Purim is one of the most picturesque
festivals, but it’s only a minor event in a calendar full of anniversaries and holy days,
each with particular customs and obligations alongside the general reaffirmation of
tradition and survival. Their frequency keeps the Jewish calendar constantly in mind
— and preserves continuity and belief in a future. For those who live by this calendar,
there’s always the next festival to look forward to.

At the end of the Purim service, the rabbi invited the congregation to a seder to
celebrate the next festival, Passover, only a few weeks ahead.

  1. These are really excellent, first class and deeply thought provoking. I do so admire how you can take on contemporary issues, see them in context, and … well, just have the magnanimity to assess them.

  2. Rosalind Ross says:

    I was your contemporary atSHHS and Jewishtoo so lrecognise loads of this and the piece about the young woman seeking contraception. You have some marvellously evocative writings.

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