This must be very strange

Anyone who says
I’m not a Jew
is not a Jew
I’m very sorry
but this is final

–Leonard Cohen, ‘Not a Jew’, Book of Longing

I was helping my mum out in her shop yesterday. In the afternoon, she left, and I was working there alone, bored brainless. I had managed to stop someone shoplifting one of her smaller wooden plaques, explained to people who complained about the “expensive” price of a $22 handmade sign for the bathroom that this is locally made art, not slave labour wares from third world countries (I was smug and angry, yep), and didn’t make one sale all day. I thought of my mum in her studio, working with her shoulders hunched over endless arrays of orders and plaques, and felt a surge of protectiveness. I was perhaps unfair.

One of my parents’ friends walked into the shop an hour before I closed. He was expecting them instead of me, but we started talking. How’s the work situation going? Bad. Are you married yet? No. What about kids, any plans? No. I know the list by now, we run through it like a routine we both have to perform.

Then we talk about the “terrible news”. It’s always terrible, whatever’s happening, wherever it’s happening in the world. We don’t talk about the terrible news in our own home country, because that’s just too close, and involves people we know. So we talk about beings Jews instead. This he always asks me when he sees me, which is not very often: “Do you believe in god?” A strange question for some, but it’s almost become a joke between us. My answers have changed over the years. But right now I can say “no” without a buffer to make that final disbelief more palatable to someone who does believe in god. “There are many ways to be Jews, Hila” he says before he kisses me two times on each cheek and gives me a hug.

There are so many ways to be Jews, let me count the ways ... it sounds romantic and promising. But in truth it’s just random. Perhaps because I was sitting there all day feeling protective over my mother; perhaps because I’m generally demoralised by everything right now; perhaps because I’m expecting bad news this week and don’t know if I can bear it; and perhaps because I was eyeing more people as potential shoplifters as I was closing up and cleaning the counter. Whatever. I felt terrible, and still do.

I remember a few years ago filling out a census form here in Australia. During this time, there was a campaign by Humanist groups (I think – they may have been general atheist groups) to convince people who considered themselves atheists to mark that down in the religion section of the form. We humans have a tendency to fall back on habit, even when that habit is an outright lie. Many people who filled out that form probably noted down the religion of their parents, or family, or community, without thinking twice about what they really believed in. I, an atheist, put down the religion of my parents: Judaism. I didn’t do this because I believe in god, or because I wasn’t thinking about the implications of calling upon my family’s religion; it was a knowing, deliberate act to defy what I actually believe with the emotional connection I have with being a Jew. This connection is something more subtle than faith in something bigger than us. In fact, rather than opening me up to a belief in a grand scheme orchestrated by a force mightier than humanity, my connection with my religion is based on wholly human associations.

My last memory of my grandfather alive is of him tied to equipment in a hospital, violently fighting with a nurse who tried to insert something down his throat. I was sent out of the room. Later, calm, he looked me straight in the eye and said: “This must be very strange for you”. The nurse probably thought he meant being in hospital, seeing him like this – the whole spectacle of unexpected violence from a generally gentle man. But what he really meant was being back in Israel. I was in High School then. I didn’t answer him, but I was glad someone asked me that.

For years, he had been living on borrowed time. He suffered a heart attack early in his forties and his heart only functioned reluctantly ever since. Rather than fighting against death, he swam with it, exuberantly. He smoked endlessly, telling me with a half-smile every time we passed the retirement housing in his kibbutz that this particular cigarette he was smoking would make sure he never ended up there. His plan worked. He died relatively young, in the middle of a kibbutz field, clutching his tractor. He died in his own temple. When they buried him, they placed him in a temple of their own.

He was buried quickly, according to Jewish law. My mother got a phone call in Australia the day he died: “He died on his bloody tractor!” she said to my dad. I’ve hardly seen my mum cry, so I remember this conversation well. I was watching a movie on video: a young Red Riding Hood was holding a wolf, “I’ll tell you a story of a wounded wolf ...”; cut to a scene of a priest reaching out to a naked, bleeding wolf-girl; cut to a scene in hospital, “This must be very strange for you”; cut to my mother saying, “bloody tractor!” My brother used to kiss its shit-filled wheels. I never felt more Jewish in my life.

When a library assistant at Yad Vashem showed me the records of my family’s death, my father was sitting next to me, agitated and unnaturally excited. It was his family after all. He was talking too loud and the students in front of us were glaring at our direction. The silence of the library was sickening and I stepped outside. There’s beautiful scenery of Jerusalem from the balcony of Yad Vashem’s library. I looked at it and tried to calm down. Behind me were two soldiers speaking a combination of Russian and Hebrew and smoking. I guess they must have thought I was a tourist, and so I pretended I didn’t speak Hebrew, even though what I really wanted to do was ask them if I could stand closer and smell their cigarette smoke. I turned my back to them and took a picture of Jerusalem. A memento mori. I’d like to say it stands for insight, but there was none on that day. My family were killed in a brutal and random way. None of it made sense, and none of it tied neatly with a sense of belonging, home, or identity. And yet, once again, I felt that familiar ache in my heart – that feeling of recognising myself in my family, in our history, in the randomness of it all.

The next day, I’m sitting in a relative’s house, listening to her talk about our family history. Leah Perlmeter. Someone who escapes from Kishinev? Another Perlmeter. Lots of pogroms. Some family in Romania? Definitely a lot in Hungary. I write everything down like I’m sitting in a lecture. Random details float from her and I can’t keep up. In between, she asks me, “So when are you going to get married?” I sit there dazed, wondering how those words can come out of her mouth.

That evening, I’m in my grandmother’s living room as we watch a documentary on TV. She mutters to the screen: “I never felt different”. The documentary explores racism in Israel, especially to new immigrants. My grandmother’s memory is deliberately deceptive. When she arrived in the kibbutz newly married to my grandfather, she was different, and she knew it. Not European enough and from an orthodox family in Morocco. Not a socialist or communist (“What’s the difference Hila, can you explain that to me?”). She told my mother once how condescending the nurses were to her when she gave birth. “Like I cow I was treated”. She was expected to feed my mother, then go away while the kibbutz took care of her own baby. My grandmother, with fourteen brothers and sisters, some whom she had raised since birth, felt the full force of their disdain. Sure, she felt different. Sure, we all lie to each other, just as I lie when she also asks me if I’m planning on getting married soon. It seems cruel to tell her the truth at that moment, when she’s lying so well.

I think about all these things. And I think back to my grandfather staring at me and saying:

“This must be very strange for you”. Yes, it is.