What does it mean to be Jewish today? Well, I wouldn’t know–I’m not Jewish. Although people often assume I am, and usually this time of year I field the “so, uh… do I wish you a happy Hanukkah?” question. I’m not offended–if anything I appreciate the sentiment–but it does raise some interesting questions about identity and culture. I have a Jewish grandmother. I grew up in New Jersey with lots of Jewish friends. Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah were school holidays, Chinese restaurants were open on Christmas Day, and attending after-school care at the local JCC I would sometimes snack on matzoh spread with Marshmallow Fluff, or rock-hard pieces of Bazooka bubble gum with comics in Hebrew. I always celebrated Christmas, but never in a religious sense. I have a significant amount of Jewish heritage, at least according to AncestryDNA. So sometimes people ask me, even though I’ve never attended synagogue services outside of a friend’s bat mitzvah, do I still feel “culturally Jewish”?
It’s a tricky question–what exactly is Jewish culture? Is it having strong opinions about bagels? Is it understanding the jokes in this Crazy Ex-Girlfriend number? Is it collective trauma? Is it sarcasm? Is it unwitting coworkers asking me if I’ve done Birthright?
Greene’s essays explore a contemporary Jewish identity with a particular British flavour, which I found really intriguing as much of my experience of Jewishness has been American-accented. Greene grew up in suburban North London, in a secular-leaning Jewish family, and never thought much about being Jewish until attending university. Surrounded by BDS protests and his now-partner asking him if he was going to dump her for not being Jewish, Greene began to explore his identity more deeply, through screenplays and fiction writing. Eventually, this culminates in the birth of his son and the question over what it means to be Jewish with “a little j and a big ISH”.
I think Greene’s work is universal and anyone can find something to connect with, regardless of their background–his retelling of visiting the Western Wall and “feeling nothing but the pressure to feel something” is recognisable no matter what you believe. Who hasn’t felt like this on a New Year’s Eve or on prom night or during a graduation ceremony? He has a snappy, relatable style that strikes a good balance of dropping his readers straight into the action and providing enough background on Jewish traditions and practices to make it an educational experience without bringing everything to a screeching halt. And there’s a great sense of humour to his work, too. There are lots of treatises on the institution of Jewish comedy on both sides of the pond, and observant jibes about tourist-friendly restaurants lining the road to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. I will admit I laughed out loud at Greene’s musings over whether making porridge with oat milk would fall afoul of kosher dietary laws to not cook something in the milk of its mother.
My favourite of Greene’s essays was about anti-Semitism on the Internet, an extremely impactful work on the subject. Greene looks at the rise of anti-Semitism across the web that has bled into real-life politics both on the left and the right, bringing a sobering perspective to the strange paradox of how politicians like Trump can be admired by conservative Jewish groups and neo-Nazis alike. The essay also examines how anti-Semitism has fractured the UK Labour party from the inside out, and how anti-Semitic dog whistles pepper media coverage of this issue and many others. If you read only one essay from this book, it should be this one.
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