I hope you don’t mind me addressing you by your first name. I can’t remember what I called you when you were alive. Everyone else calls you Nancy. Wee Nancy.
I can’t remember much about you, except the sound you made when you laughed. You laughed grittily and wholeheartedly.
I have one very vivid memory of you. Darren took me across Easterhouse to your flat overlooking the park. We must have been so small because we slipped through the railings on the veranda. Darren went ahead of me: “Wait there.” He went into your living room and said: “I’ve got a surprise for you.” That was my cue. I was the surprise. I went in and you beamed and laughed and said: “Let me look at you, son!” You stretched out your arms and I was brought into a cuddle too big to remember. I just remember the way you said those words and the way you laughed.
Everything else I remember of you is from other people. We have a video of you singing karaoke. You were phenomenal. Glamorous and bassy. Everyone says that you were amazing at performing. I’ve heard stories about you too – about how you’d prise off your shoe to beat my mum when she’d been naughty, but it’d take so long and get so farcical that you’d just wind up laughing. That’s how I always picture you: laughing. Mum says you were wonderful.
This week I was asked by a teacher to write to my maternal grandmother and explain why I’m becoming a rabbi. He said I needed to give an account of myself from how your life has ended up with mine.
He said I should write about migration experiences, religious beliefs and family life. I think he had in mind that you’d be a shtetl Jew transported from a village in Eastern Europe to England with nothing but faith and a chicken soup recipe. I don’t think he imagined a Catholic cleaner on a sprawling council estate in Scotland. But the fact that your story is so different to the story of most grandmothers of rabbis, and that mine is so different to that of most rabbis, makes it even more worth telling. He’s right: I do owe you an explanation of how we got from your life to mine.
I’m sorry I haven’t written to you before. I’m sorry that I haven’t given you enough thought generally. My mum sometimes chastises me that I take all this interest in my Jewish roots but none in my Scottish roots. As I write this, I realise how right she is. I don’t know enough about where you came from. Peggy, my dad’s great aunt, is 101 and she has a family tree that includes mayors and bankers and businessmen. I don’t know what your parents did. Family trees and old age are things that privileged people have. I’m sorry you didn’t live longer to tell me your stories.
Thank you for everything you did for my mum. From what she’s said, her early years weren’t easy. Working in the job centre in one of this country’s worst recessions sounds like an all-too-familiar nightmare. Her experiences of inequality and injustice led her to join the Militant Tendency – then the revolutionary wing of the Labour Party – where she met my dad. She tells me that you used to vote Communist because the councillor was nice and tried to change things. I inherited from her that burning sense of rage against injustice and a deep-seated awareness of how broken our world is.
My dad came from a different world. He was raised by my granddad, a Liberal Jewish rabbi, and my granny, who was a secretary to a Labour MP and is still alive now. They, too, knew injustice. My granddad fled from the Nazis as a teenager. Every member of his family bar his sister was killed in their genocide. My granny used to get hate mail because she used her position in Parliament to try to help asylum seekers get into the country. She suspects the letters came from inside the House.
For a while, my dad, too, thought that he’d become a rabbi. Instead, he ended up becoming a Marxist and meeting my mum, your daughter. They were bound together by the causes they believed in, like getting the Tories out of power, overthrowing capitalism, abolishing bombs and anti-racism: you know, the normal things that parents spend their times doing. My earliest memories are all of protests. I remember placards and chants and disruption. I remember the excitement of seeing a woman chain herself to a fence. I remember my mum and dad rattling tins and trying to sell papers.
I think you must have played a big role in my mum’s desire to change the system. How you lived and thought and voted might have mattered, but above all I imagine that what motivated so many of those socialists was the belief that a janitor in Glasgow should not have so much less life than a businessman in London. That basic view is still at the core of everything I believe.
When I was born, the local rabbi wrote to my mum and dad to ask if they’d like to raise me Jewish. They responded that they wouldn’t. By the time I was 6 I was insistent that I did want a Jewish upbringing. I don’t know what had got in to me. I think I liked the prayers in school and I believed in God. Perhaps that was enough. In hindsight, I think any religion would have worked for me. If I’d been Catholic or Muslim or Buddhist, I would just have just ended up being in the radical wing of one of their sects, using their texts and rituals.
As it happened, I grew up in an amazing Jewish community. This group of dedicated people got together in Reading’s Friends Meeting House on Saturdays and festivals to celebrate and eat. We sang songs. We danced. We made things. We talked about what we thought about different issues. We children were treated like our opinions mattered. One of the community members had a farm and we’d head out there to plant trees on Tu B’Shevat in February; to harvest rhubarb at Shavuot in June; and to sleep under the stars for Sukkot in October. When the rabbi preached, she talked about social justice and healing the world. The congregants talked about feminism and gay rights and refugees. By the time I was a teenager, Judaism and socialism had melded together into one common religion in my head.
As a grew up, the need for both became increasingly clear. Along with many of my school friends, I got involved in the campaign against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I became aware of racism and inequality in my own small world. I realised that I was gay and that I didn’t fit in with what people expected of me. Although I did well at school, I hated it. I never felt like I fitted in.
When I went to synagogue, though, I felt like I was embraced with all my weirdness and queerness – even if I didn’t have those words for them then. Judaism reassured me that, despite my fears, every person was uniquely made in the image of God and deserved dignity. Socialism reassured me that a time would come when all inequalities would be erased, all wars would end, and everybody would treat each other with respect. Judaism told me that on that day God’s name would be one and would be known to be one.
After school, I went to university. When I got there, I encountered something I’d never imagined existed: right-wing Jews. They were homophobic and nationalistic. They had no interest in praying or planting trees or singing songs. They were deeply interested in waving a flag for a country I’d never visited and hadn’t heard great things about. It was a culture shock. But they were very clear that what they had was authentic Judaism and everybody else seemed to agree with them. That was the tail-end of the Blair years, when a form of multiculturalism was very fashionable that required religious minorities to perform their differences as visually as possible. So they looked like ‘real Jews’. And I was a hippy with a bit of Hebrew.
Only after university did I meet other Hebrew-speaking hippies. I kept going to synagogue for the High Holy Days in the meantime, but with something of a sadness at a Judaism that I thought was shared and loved was, for some people, and perceived by many, as just a posh kids club in North West London. I kept trying to find the God that I believed in and the religion that I’d grown up in.
Then, by chance, it found me. I moved to a nice part of East London with parks and cafes. I took up a job at a charity that worked on getting aid to people in war zones (“saving the whales or whoever”, auntie Hannah called it). I was living above a kebab shop with some amazing friends. And, right on the same street, was a small synagogue adjoined to a church, opposite a mosque, that doubled-up as a centre for migrants.
The first time I went, there was no rabbi. Everybody there took turns leading different bits – giving the sermon, singing the prayers, reading the Torah. It felt intimate and people-driven. I sat next to a retired lady who danced her way through the service and afterwards told me that she taught dance therapy, or something like that. Afterwards, people had cups of tea and chatted. I felt like I’d found my Jews again.
Later, the rabbi would take me out for a cup of tea and tell me that, as a community, they didn’t do very much social justice work because everyone was doing so much of that in their own lives. She was a lesbian and had a wife who played guitar at some of the services. I can’t tell you what it meant to me to see another gay person leading a synagogue, especially one that seemed to chime so deeply with my values.
At the same time, two people reached out to me from a group called ‘Jewdas’. They called themselves Jewish anarchists or communists or hipsters or something, I can’t quite remember. They’d heard I was a far-left Jew and wondered if I’d want to meet up. We went to an Irish pub near my flat. My housemate came for moral support. They were full of life and excitement – radical Jews who wanted to overthrow capitalism and end nationalism. I was finally finding my way in the world.
Not long after, Israel started bombing Gaza. That invasion drove a wedge in British society, and especially in Anglo-Jewry. I saw otherwise sensible Jews defending unconscionable actions. I saw people, even in the Liberal synagogues I’d loved, advocating to ‘kill Arabs’, or equivocating about how ‘complicated’ it all was. The group around Jewdas expanded ten-fold as Jews gathered together who wanted to explore their culture and religion but couldn’t abide the reactionary Zionism they found in their community. We shared ideas. We talked about the histories of other anti-capitalist and anti-Zionist Jews and integrated their stories into ours. We prayed and made Shabbat and said Kaddish for the murdered Palestinians.
I resolved that I had to dedicate myself to that Judaism: that Judaism of marginalised people speaking out against power; that Judaism that used Hebrew words to heal modern wounds; that Judaism of justice, folk traditions and music that could stand by people in their happiest and saddest moments. And I decided to learn everything I could so that I could become a rabbi.
When I applied to the rabbinic College, I was upfront about my politics and who I was. I wrote an application pledging my loyalty to ‘radical Judaism’ – “more like a manifesto than an application,” one of the rabbis interviewing me called it. They subjected me to a week of interviews where I answered hard questions about God and Israel and rules and my life story. At the end of it, I was convinced they’d never let me in and that I’d have to find some other way of creating the Judaism I believed in.
But they did let me in. So I’m here.
There are so many other stories I’d like to tell you, and so many other reasons I could give you, but I think the simplest answer to why I want to be a rabbi is that I want to make people’s lives better. And I think that can’t happen without systemic change and a loving God. My mum says you’d understand that. She says you had faith in God too. So I hope, with faith, you can understand who I am and what I’m trying to do.
I love you. I miss you.
I wrote this for a Philosophy class at Leo Baeck College. I sent it to my mum before uploading it, who commented that she had looked into her family history, but everyone had married pregnant and died young.