The only

Feb. 18th, 2016 11:40 pm
liv: In English: My fandom is text obsessed / In Hebrew: These are the words (words)
[personal profile] liv
I've spent my life being the only Jewish person in most social contexts. When I was tiny, younger than school age I think, I tried to explain the High Holy Days to my Dad's best friend from university; I remember vividly the intense embarrassment at having made a social misstep, but also the sheer surprise at discovering that someone other than family, met outside a Jewish context, could also be Jewish.

I was the only Jewish kid in my nursery school. My brother and I had to go up on stage a week or so after I started full-time school to demonstrate to the other pupils that we were normal children just like them and nobody should pick on us for being Jewish. That could have backfired, but in fact it didn't, it was only really in junior school that I got bullied for being the only Jewish kid, and that was caused by a couple of teachers who had a problem with it and egged the other children on to be horrible to me. In secondary school I wasn't the only, probably about 1% of the school body were Jewish, so that meant about one girl in each yeargroup, and I had to do lots of explaining, and had to sit out of RE class the term we "did" Judaism because the teacher was insecure about teaching in front of a student who knew more than she did. I obviously wasn't the only Jewish person at Oxford (!), but I it was a very common experience for me as a student that I would be the first Jewish person somebody had met. And when I lived in Scotland and Sweden, I was pretty much the only Jewish person in my work circles and other social groups, and often the only Jewish person in interfaith groups.

Now I'm semi-officially the Only Jewish Person at the university where I'm a lecturer. I mean, I'm not, not remotely, but nobody else is admitting to it and I'm the person the university calls on for official functions when they want some Diversity. They're in the process of doing bureaucracy to make this actually officially part of my role, with a title and terms of reference and everything. I somewhat flippantly describe it as being appointed as the institution's official token Jew, and that's only partly a joke.

So that's pretty much always been part of my experience. And now I'm the only Jewish person in my relationship, in the group of people whose lives are perhaps less intertwined than the most common meaning of the word family in a culture that has definite expectations of what a nuclear family looks like, but not a whole lot less. I mean, I was the only Jewish person in my relationship when it was just me and my husband, but being one out of two doesn't feel quite so much like being the odd one out as being the only Jewish one in a group that contains two culturally Christian atheists and four religious Catholics. Generally I'm pretty happy in this situation, but it's something that impacts on various parts of my life so I feel like talking about it a bit.

Firstly I should make it absolutely clear that nobody has ever been anything but entirely nice and supportive. I wouldn't have got into a relationship in the first place with anyone who believed in trying to convert me, whether to atheism or to their religion, or generally went around undermining my religious beliefs and practices. (Equally I wouldn't really be willing to date someone who was from a different religion from me, but unsure of their own religious place and views; I would be too nervous of influencing them in a way that I'd consider inappropriate.)

The thing I'm finding hardest is knowing that most of the Jewish world, even the liberal bits where I mostly hang out, really disapproves of mixed relationships. I'm nervous that the combination of mixed and poly is going to be too much even for open-minded people. I haven't had any trouble so far, but equally I haven't really told anyone much, and the fact of having to make a calculation whether I come out is something I'm finding a bit stressful. I'm having to be careful on FB too, cos that contains a lot of people I mostly know through community stuff.

Apart from that, in some ways it's harder dating religious Christians than atheists, in some ways easier. There are definitely things that my OSOs intuitively understand about how I tick that I've had to explain carefully to my husband, who is not only atheist in terms of his beliefs but had no religious upbringing. And I think at a high level my partners have approaches to religion that gel quite well with mine, without papering over the fact that we do in fact come from substantially different traditions. On the other hand, there's more likely to be a conflict between clashing beliefs and practices, than between religious observance and the absence of such.

It also helps that I take a fairly typical Jewish attitude to theology, namely that I consider it basically a personal matter, and also I think absolutely everybody who ever tries to conceptualize God is necessarily wrong, so the fact of different people using different metaphors to try to understand what is beyond human comprehension is not very important. So ok, it's true I find the idea of Trinitarianism entirely baffling, but that doesn't have much impact on anybody's day to day life. I also have quite profound disagreements with my Christian partners about the nature of marriage, but this is entirely academic given that everybody in the quad is already married and it's not legal anyway for us to enter into any more marriages even if we wanted to.

I think probably the most serious thing we disagree about is, well, see that bit up there where I talked about culturally Christian atheists? Some of the Christians disagree with that as a concept, I think essentially they hold that you have to believe in Jesus to be Christian, but I don't want to put words into anyone's mouth, and I'm not sure that's exactly what the discord is. But generally I have always made a point of insisting that people who are atheist, and who are also part of the dominant Christian-flavoured culture should say so; the experience of not believing in God is very different if everybody assumes you're default and unmarked, and you don't also come from a religious-ethnic minority, and you can expect to get time off for the festivals you grew up with without having to even think about it, and that most media references to religion will be ones you are familiar with. I don't think anybody disagrees with me about that, but it feels like we have a huge gulf of understanding about my assumption that the sorts of atheists I'm talking about actually do share that Christian culture even if they don't share the beliefs.

We are still figuring out how best to express respect for eachothers' beliefs. I mean, the respect is clearly and evidently there, but it's easy to get tangled up in things. The thing I find difficult is being welcoming and including all my partners in my religious life, without in any way seeming like I'm trying to push my religion on them. And probably I should worry less because I don't actually think any of my partners feel like I'm being pushy if I offer them doughnuts for chanukah or invite them to Jewish things. But it's especially important with the younger children, because of course they're interested in everything that I'm interested in, and excited to learn about stuff, but they may not have a clear distinction between which behaviours are just cool things that adults do, and which things I do specifically because I'm Jewish. I should probably trust them, because I knew full well when I was four when I was just joining in with Christian things to be nice to my friends, and that it wasn't for me. But I didn't have non-Jews showing up and joining my family, so.

No matter what I think intellectually, I still emotionally react to church as a basically hostile environment. That is emphatically not my partners' fault, it's a combination of personal and more global history. So yes, I do very much want to go along to church with my people, it's part of their lives and anyway I find it interesting and enjoyable in spite of that emotional flinch. I know some Jewish people think it's wrong to attend Christian services, or even to go into church buildings, at all; I've never held that attitude, though for a while I didn't want to go to services where Mass was taking place. That changed long before I got together with current Christian partners, because a close friend of mine had a Communion service as part of her wedding, and I decided then I don't have that strong a principle against it. But it still utterly weirds me out, I think mainly because it feels like I'm watching something really intimate and somehow, however much I'm invited, it feels wrong for an outsider to be present at all.

In terms of home ceremonies, things are mostly going well. Grace at meals is quite complicated, not in a bad way, just there are lots of factors to take into account. Early on in the relationship, Christian partner and me agreed that it would be a good idea to encourage eachother to say grace when we eat; [personal profile] jack approves of the concept of grace even if he doesn't like the theism. But other atheist friends quite often don't, so getting better at saying grace out loud rather than just in my head means I have to be careful about when I do it. There's also a bit of an issue because I basically want to say grace after a meal, and just the simple blessing for bread before, but anyway. The Christians seem basically ok with blessing God for creating bread (or rather, conditions which allow humans to farm, make flour, and bake); I am ok with saying amen to most of their forms of grace, even the ones that talk about Jesus, because I'm regarding Jesus language as a different metaphor for God, rather than a prayer to a false god.

I have a load of issues around other people seeing me lay tefillin. Partly cos of stuff from my childhood, partly because (slight exaggeration), there are only about three people in the world who think tefillin is a ritual I should be participating in *waves to [personal profile] hatam_soferet and [personal profile] withagreatlove*. Actually it matters less with non-Jewish friends, because they're not going to be aware of all the denominational politics around the practice. And actually, when I can get over being embarrassed by this weird ritual that I do, it's kind of nice to be in the presence of people who know how to hold prayerful space, and generally understand the idea of regular ritual practice. I mean, one time recently we'd originally decided I was going to stay home while some of the family went to church, and changed plans at the last minute, with the consequence that I ended up attending a Christian service before I'd completed my own morning prayers, which I felt a bit guilty about, but it wasn't anybody's fault, it was just circumstances.

As far as anything is ever awkward at all, I think it's largely because I have a kind of default expectation that when it comes to religion, I have to make myself as small as possible. If I want to be able to carry out my non-mainstream practices, I have to ask really nicely, and only ask at all when I can't possibly avoid inconveniencing others. I expect that Christian-ish people will be pleasant to me only if I do lots of work to make my religion seem unthreatening. I know that's really not entirely fair, most people have a pretty positive attitude towards different religions even if they're starting from a place of ignorance. But I'm sometimes emotionally doing that tripping over the last stair thing, of expecting resistance and things that have to be carefully managed, when in fact there is only respect and support.

Part of the reason why interfaith relationships are difficult is of course that there's loads of history. Within the quad we can do all kinds of "my ancestors persecuted your ancestors" things, it's not just that I'm the only Jewish person, our backgrounds include German, English and Irish and I'm not sure if those of us who aren't Catholic are ancestrally Protestant but probably. Added to that there's the thing where specifically Catholic Christianity was completely rubbish at dealing with Jews until about 50 years ago, when the Church suddenly got clue and became in fact much better than most other Christian denominations, but the history didn't magically go away. Some members of my (birth) family have had personal bad experiences with Catholicism as institution, and as a result have some residual prejudice, and I'm concerned I might have picked some of that up. There's the bits of Jewish liturgy which evolved in a context where Christians were oppressors and is therefore a bit pointed or even actually nasty about Christians, and there's also, well, at one point I asked my partners to please not apologise to me for the Inquisition, because really!

In lots of ways it's really wonderful, though. We're finding lots of creative ways to combine celebrations that fall at the same time while still respecting their character and context. My favourite was when [livejournal.com profile] ghoti set a cheesecake on fire when my cheesecake eating Pentecost fell on the same day as their spiritual fire Pentecost. And as I've often found before, being around people who are not Jewish and are sincerely interested in Judaism is good for my own connection to religion.
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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