The more things change?

I was waiting for the bus early one morning last week, really really tired, and really really cold. And wet. Mid-way through the rain, it turned into snow and I could feel my fingers going numb from under my gloves. I started swearing in my head at that stage and wishing I could just crawl into bed for a week.

Because it will soon be International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, my mind drifted to other people who stood in the snow. I forgot how cold I was and felt rather stupid and selfish.

This is something I’ve been thinking about lately: what it must have felt like, physically, emotionally and psychologically, to be in the snow, with little protection, in those camps. To feel that abandoned by the world. To be that naked with no one to care. How do human beings endure that? Our bodies and minds are not built for that kind of assault. It shocks me every time I think about it, and that shock never wears off.

Each year we say ‘never again’ and each year we mean it, but also, we know it’s not the truth. Because the only thing that protects Jews from ‘never again’ is not the goodwill or benevolence of the world which has learnt its lesson, but our own determined self-protection. You don’t need to look very far to know that the world has not only not learnt its lesson, but is mutating and expanding anti-Semitism in varied new directions.

Yesterday, the UN held its first-ever meeting on anti-Semitism. It took till 2015 for them to do that. What the hell were they waiting for, exactly? The more things change, the more they stay the same.**

I don’t want to remember the Holocaust for my own sake, or the sake of present Jews alone. But simply, for the sake of those whom the world failed to protect, those who were turned into numbers, standing alone in the snow.

**I leave you with illustrative and necessary reading:

‘The Jewish situation, too, is marked by a disjuncture between what we say about ourselves and what is said about us.’

Belgian public schools becoming ‘Jew-free’ zones.

‘My great uncle Alex led a wonderful life after the war as an art dealer, but, as I said, he never again trusted the country that had betrayed him so badly. When I asked once why he refused to keep his paintings in a bank vault, preferring instead to keep them hidden in his house, he replied: “Because they always come for the Jews.” Plus ça change.

‘What will it take for progressives to understand in their bones that Jew-hatred can never be one whit more defensible than any other racial insanity? A competitive number of Jewish bodies? Will resolutions flow now through academic associations calling for sanctions against Jew-hating institutions? Why is there any hesitation about protecting a vulnerable and long-devastated people—even when the Jewish State commits its own crimes? Is there always to be an asterisk about racism, where the attached footnote reads: Jews need not apply?

‘The silence that descended on Paris on the eve of Shabbat, after the echoes of shootings in the north and east of the city quieted down, was not light. It was thick, strangling, burdensome.’

Averting the gaze

I recently saw a facebook friend, who is Jewish, write that she and other Jews feel abandoned by the left. It’s a sentiment that isn’t unique to her, I’ve heard many of my fellow left-wing Jews express similar sentiments, as have I. We are not really wanted on the left anymore unless we swear a loyalty oath against Israel. Black and white versions of the world, loyalty oaths, boycotts, simplifying human beings and their complex relationships to their various cultural and religious identities, their homes and their families, etc., seems to me to work against what the left has always represented to me. But now I’m starting to wonder whether I ever was considered part of the camaraderie of ‘acceptance’, or whether that acceptance has always been conditional on being a ‘good Jew’, defined mainly by non-Jews.

I don’t think I need to explain why it’s not up to non-Jews to tell Jews what they should or should not feel about their religion, or culture, or even about Israel. Nor do I think I need to explain why non-Jews don’t have a right to place us into ‘good Jews’ and ‘bad Jews’ categories where they set the boundaries of acceptance and belonging and make them contingent on selective criteria. You don’t walk up to any minority and make them tokenistic emblems, or require loyalty oaths from them, or set conditions about their very own identity. But yet, this all seems to be acceptable practice in most left-wing events I’ve attended, and seems to be the status quo in the kind of behaviour I see on social media.

In my stupidity, I expected there to be a large response from my non-Jewish left-wing twitter feed or facebook friends about the recent anti-Semitic attack in Paris. But instead, the silence was deafening. It’s a pattern I should be used to by now – I usually only see my Jewish friends react or condemn when such events occur. Which is in stark contrast to my feed when any other minority group is targeted in a similar hateful and murderous way. I have raised this before with non-Jewish left-wing friends, trying to explain to them, on a really basic level, why we feel abandoned by the left. The response tends to be that not everyone has to react to every single injustice, that people can’t always react publicly to everything. There is truth in that – after all, I myself don’t always have the energy, the time, or even the knowledge to react to every single injustice – and sometimes I may condemn something without feeling the need to make it public all the time (after all, my principles and my ethics aren’t a public performance, so not everything is up for public consumption). But there is something else going on here.

This pattern is consistent for a reason. The left-wing gaze is consistently averting its eyes from contemporary anti-Semitism as if it doesn’t exist, or is simply not as relevant as other injustices. As if Jews don’t have a genuine reason to be afraid just like any other minority group that is under attack. If I want to actually be informed about what’s going on in worldwide and in particular, European, anti-Semitism, I have to actively seek it out in Jewish press.

I’m sure that for every line I’ve written here, there is an example that contradicts what I’ve said. God, I hope so, please prove me wrong. But at the same time, many of us left-wing Jews are saying similar things to what I’ve said above, and maybe it’s time people started believing us.

I have closed comments on this post for obvious reasons.

Sivan and snow

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Today, Sivan, my niece, was born in Australia. It began snowing here in England in big fluffy flakes soon after. I don’t think this is a coincidence. The best way I know how to show love is through words, so it was also not a coincidence that my first instinct was to write a poem. I wish I was good – I mean really good, good enough to use these words and write poems that capture exactly what I feel, the intensity of it, and the wonder, and not just the shadow of these. I doubt I ever will be, that greatness seems to be reserved for a few. But so what, it’s better to say something, no?

So this is for Sivan, who came with snow. Welcome to the world, little one.

Sivan and snow

There are many symbols
I would have chosen for you,

but today, you came,
followed by diagonal lines
falling from the sky

until today, I did not know
they had their own sound.

The large criss-crossing ones
landed like locks of hair
the smaller buzzing ones
that came an hour later

congregated on my windowsill
melted into water
and clung as breath to glass.

I think of you
all new and fresh
warmer, yet as swooshing
and clumsy as these lines.

I think of the world
that is out there for you,

and hope that like this
fragility,
you will be strong enough to melt
malleable enough to fall
and ever-suspended in
the beauty.

2015

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Me

I present you with a (bad) selfie at the close of 2014. I keep looking at this photo because it’s hard to believe I’m the same person. This year has been an upheaval in different ways. I miss so many things. I also miss writing here, and simply writing because I want to, not because I have to.

Last year, I ended the year with a blog post on this film, quoting the last letters of Missak Manouchian and Marcel Rayman. I would like to quote them again; they insert a sense of perspective on everything. At the very least, they remind me of who I am and how that will never change, despite upheaval. They also remind me as the year closes that I am quite insignificant, and it’s okay.

Missak Manouchian’s last words in a letter to his wife, Melinée:

My dear Melinée, my beloved little orphan,

In a few hours I will no longer be of this world. We are going to be executed today at 3:00. This is happening to me like an accident in my life; I don’t believe it, but I nevertheless know that I will never see you again.

What can I write you? Everything inside me is confused, yet clear at the same time.

I joined the Army of Liberation as a volunteer, and I die within inches of victory and the final goal. I wish for happiness for all those who will survive and taste the sweetness of the freedom and peace of tomorrow. I’m sure that the French people, and all those who fight for freedom, will know how to honour our memory with dignity. At the moment of death, I proclaim that I have no hatred for the German people, or for anyone at all; everyone will receive what he is due, as punishment and as reward. The German people, and all other people, will live in peace and brotherhood after the war, which will not last much longer. Happiness for all ... I have one profound regret, and that’s of not having made you happy; I would so much have liked to have a child with you, as you always wished. So I’d absolutely like you to marry after the war, and, for my happiness, to have a child and, to fulfil my last wish, marry someone who will make you happy. All my goods and all my affairs, I leave them to you and to my nephews. After the war you can request your right to a war pension as my wife, for I die as a regular soldier in the French army of liberation.

With the help of friends who’d like to honour me, you should publish my poems and writings that are worth being read. If possible, you should take my memory to my parents in Armenia. I will soon die with 23 of my comrades, with the courage and the serenity of a man with a peaceful conscience; for, personally, I’ve done no one ill, and if I have, it was without hatred. Today is sunny. It’s in looking at the sun and the beauties of nature that I loved so much that I will say farewell to life and to all of you, my beloved wife, and my beloved friends. I forgive all those who did me evil, or who wanted to do so, with the exception of he who betrayed us to redeem his skin, and those who sold us out. I ardently kiss you, as well as your sister and all those who know me, near and far; I hold you all against my heart. Farewell. Your friend, your comrade, your husband,

Manouchian Michel

P.S. I have 15,000 francs in the valise on the rue de Plaisance. If you can get it, pay off all my debts and give the rest to Armenia. MM

Marcel Rayman’s last letter to his mother and brother, Simon:

Little mother,

When you read this letter, I’m sure it will cause you extreme pain, but I will have been dead for a while, and you’ll be consoled by my brother who will live happily with you and give you all the joy I would have liked to give you.

Forgive me for not writing at greater length, but we are all so joyful that it’s impossible to think of the pain you will feel. I can only say one thing, and that’s that I love you more than anything in the world, and I would have liked to live for your sake alone. I love you, I kiss you, but words can’t describe what I feel.

Your Marcel who adores you and who’ll think of you up to the last minute. I adore you, and long live life.

My dear Simon. I’m counting on you to do all I can’t do myself. I kiss you, I adore you, I’m content, live happily and make Mama happy the way I would have had I lived. Live the beautiful and joyful life that you will all have. Tell all my friends and comrades that I love them all. Don’t pay any attention if my letter is crazy, but I can’t remain serious. I love everyone and long live life. Let everyone live happily.

Marcel

Maman and Simon I love you and would love to see you again.

Reading women

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Everything is neglected in my life, including my meal intakes and sleep. But also, this blog, making phone calls to my grandparents, and just the general ‘bits’ of life that make your life more than work and actually bearable. I won’t complain, this year was never going to be easy. But I am annoyed that one of my ‘side projects’, the Women Writers Reading Group, is so neglected by me in particular.

I was reminded this week of the emotions that sparked this ‘project’ (or, whatever the hell it is now – a big flop?). I was talking to someone about how hard it is to get guys, especially young guys, to read women’s books. I guess one of the commonest complaints we both hear is that they feel they can’t ‘relate’ to women’s books, and there’s nothing in it for them. The question is though, how many more books by white men do you want? Is literature all about ‘relating’ rather than learning something new, seeing the world from another person’s perspective? I.e., is it always all about you?

I don’t blame guys entirely for this. The rigid model of masculinity they are still required to enact does not allow much room for them to see the world differently; it does not leave much scope for the idea that perhaps the world isn’t created for you, by you, to service you, and that art and literature by extension, should be all about you. How they are supposed to react to women’s literature and fiction has already been coded for them from birth, and shoved down their throat as ‘masculinity’.

But on the other hand, I do expect more from most human beings, just as I expect more from myself.

So the question is again, how many more books by white men do you want to reflect the world to you as you know it? Why is it so difficult to view women as people, rather than as a niche group you can’t empathise with? Why is it perfectly okay for women to read books by white men as emblems of their own humanity, but not okay for a white man to read a book by any woman of any class, race, or nationality as part of their own humanity too, but instead assume: ‘I can’t relate’.

One of the things about fictional worlds is that they produce all sorts of responses. Not all of them should be comforting. Some of them will require you to stretch what you have been told about yourself and to move beyond yourself and your own ego.

But really, reading women shouldn’t be such a stretch by now – we are, after all, despite what you may have been told, people too.

For imma

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

imma

Last night I had a dream that people were allowed to enter my apartment and take whatever items they wanted. Some of them asked me what I would like to keep for myself, and from my hazy dream-memory, the things I wanted to keep were to do with my family.

I woke up and found myself thinking of this poem:

Home is so Sad

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

–Philip Larkin

But this is, and is not, a sad post. Today is my mother’s birthday, and with the biased confidence of anyone who has grown up loved, I can say she is the best mum in the world. So here’s to her. I miss you and love you lots, imma.

Biopic Adaptations Conference

Sunday, November 2, 2014

CFP: Biopic Adaptations

I’m organising a conference with Deborah Cartmell at De Montfort University, and this post is to tell you all about it as well as to invite people to submit paper proposals and register while there’s still time.

The conference description is:

Biopic Adaptations Conference
Centre for Adaptations
De Montfort University
Leicester LE1 9BH
24 February 2015

Although ‘biopics’, or film biographies, have been around since the beginning of cinema, scholarly interest in the subject is only beginning to develop. This conference will bring together scholars and practitioners in a range of topics, such as the evolution of the biopic from the silent to the contemporary period, biopics of writers, sporting heroes, politicians, royalty and gangsters, and debates concerning gender, sexuality, race and historical integrity.

Proposals (between 50-100 words) and a brief biographical note should be sent to Deborah Cartmell and Hila Shachar by 27 November 2014.

Papers will be selected for publication.

Download the Biopic Adaptations conference poster (PDF).

Our keynote speaker for this conference Bafta award-winning writer Amanda Coe, discussing her work for the BBC’s upcoming drama, Life in Squares. Deborah and I will be doing a Q&A session with her in front of an audience, which will also be part of the Cultural Exchanges Festival.

Amanda Coe is a screenwriting associate of the National Film and Television School and she’s written extensively for television, including creating the award-winning Channel 4 series As If and writing the feature Margot for BBC4. She’ll be discussing her work with us, particularly her most recent project, the three-part BBC drama, Life in Squares, which explores the lives of the Bloomsbury Group, including Virginia Woolf, Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, E.M. Forster and Maynard Keynes.

Registration is now open for the conference for those who want to attend, and I also strongly encourage any academic friends reading this to submit paper proposals or to pass along the details of this conference to anyone who would be interested. So in short, you can:

: : Register here.

: : Submit paper proposals/abstracts to Deborah Cartmell and Hila Shachar by 27 November, 2014.

: : Share the conference poster here.

Happy Sunday!