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Filling in the Blanks

Hannah BradyFilmed at UJIA Sippur 2015

We spend our lives trying to find the answers to a lot of challenging questions about who we are, who the people around us are, and even how others view us. But when getting to the core of ourselves, it’s important to take a step back and think about how much of our identities are chosen and cultivated by us - and crucially, how much we allow others to mediate them for us. Filling in the Blanks is a spoken exploration of Jewish and intersectional identity that tries to make sense of how and why we choose to define one another’s identities so profoundly. It’s a call to reclaim our identities and to hold their power in our own hands.

Hannah Brady is UJS President 2015-16. Hannah studied Hebrew and Jewish Studies for her MA at UCL, and did a BA in History at King’s College London and the University of Toronto. Having been the Leadership & Training Director for Hanoar Hatzioni and a keen Limmudnik, she first got involved with UJS as KCL’s J-Soc Events officer. She later became highly involved with campaigns on campus that affected Jewish students. This included campaigning for increased Holocaust education, opposing BDS motions and founding Rethink2014, an internationally successful social media campaign, in opposition to Israel Apartheid Week. From 2013 onwards, Hannah founded and convened the UJS Disabled Students’ Network, developing national programming to enhance accessibility in student Jewish communities. During this time, Hannah was also a member of UJS National Council, serving as a Trustee in 2014-15.

We’re going to start off with a little game, so go ahead, missing word round, fill in the blank.
OK, go ahead – fill in the blanks.
Ok, ready, what have we got?

So, this is probably what you were expecting right? Especially with this being a JDOV, a Jewish TED Talk. But while this is a comment I do often get, there’s another way of filling in a blank that I’m a little more familiar with.

I have a moderate-to-severe hearing impairment; I wear hearing aids and I lip-read. When I was five weeks old, I contracted streptococcus – you might know if better as strep throat – and, having reacted rather badly to that, I was given some really powerful antibiotics in order to save my life. They killed some of my nerve endings, but arguably, they also killed all of my parents’ hopes and dreams of having a child with decent volume control.

But no-one figured all this out for quite some time. I did have speech therapy when I was really quite young, but I wasn’t diagnosed until I was six, because I failed a school hearing test, because you know, back in the old days, in the 90s, we didn’t all getting hearing tests at birth. And I think that one of my mum’s most bittersweet sort of ‘schepping nachas’ moments, was that the doctor told her that if I wasn’t so smart, and so good at coping without the ability to communicate, my deafness probably would have been picked up years earlier.

But to be honest, six doesn’t seem like a very mature age, and I don’t think many people would think their identity was particularly solid or well-developed by the time they’re six. But actually when a kid starts primary school, they actually know a lot already about who they are, they have an identity. So I knew that I was a girl, that I lived in the north of England – represent – that I was Jewish and that my family was Jewish – and all of these basic elements of my identity were confirmed, I’d internalized them, I was committed to them, and I knew about them. But the thing that I can’t say the same about is my deafness, I hadn’t internalised that, or my disability.

So my brand new, purple sparkly hearing aids were quite late to join the identity party. And I think maybe it’s because I wasn’t diagnosed until after I’d already joined school, and it didn’t really catch up with everything else going on. But even years later, I hadn’t internalized my disability or celebrated it or seen my deafness as an essential part of me. And years later, I certainly didn’t view myself as disabled.

I remember when I first moved to London for university, and at some point during the winter term, I sat in my uncle and aunt’s kitchen, talking about what I was doing, and more importantly, how far I’d managed to inch myself into the ever-elusive North West London Jewish bubble. And my aunt made an observation, that no one had really enlightened me before, and that I haven’t since forgotten. She noticed that although I was really – I mean really – into my Jewish life, I hadn’t looked at discourse around disability at all. Not in the student world, and not in the actual world.

And to be honest, I don’t remember what I replied, I don’t remember what I said. But I do remember thinking, “well, I am really Jewish but I’m not really disabled, so I don’t need to do any of that disability stuff.”

I didn’t think a lot about that interaction for a very, very long time. But, the fact that I remembered it, shows that I did recognise that there was something in it, that there was something that I knew was going to mean something later on and that it might later hold a significant insight about my identity.

So in the time between then and now, there have been a few key changes. I guess the most obvious thing is that I’m no longer a teenager. I’m an adult now, according to the law. And we can all make of that what we want! But secondly, my deafness has become one of the biggest and most important parts of my identity, and unlike during my teen years, I do now define as disabled.

So, I’ve been trying to think of why that change developed, what made that switch, and I think I’ve finally put my finger on it.

So, growing up in Newcastle, where the Jewish population is very small, I always had a bit of a ‘Rage Against the Man’ chip on my shoulder. Except in my case, it was really more of a kind of ‘Rage Against the Private Girls’ School with Very Few Jews’ sort of chip. And I really, really, really struggled with being the only Jew in the village. I was very angry, wasn’t happy. And I really made a lot of things worse for myself actually because of that, while I was trying to work through it.

So I had a lot of tantrums about generally inoffensive situations, such as Christmas existing. Yeah. In Year 7, in my first year of secondary school, I decided to take a stand, so I brought a bagel into school, when everyone else was eating Christmas lunch. And I thought, “I know, I’m going to protest Christmas, I’m going to protest all the people ignoring everyone else that doesn’t celebrate Christmas and I’m going to eat lunch by myself!”
I wish I could say I got over that quickly. It didn’t really happen that way. When I was 17, 18 in sixth form, I finally thought, “do you know what, it looks like a bit of a laugh, maybe I’ll go.” Went. I ate a Yorkshire Pudding for the first time. All those bagel protests didn’t seem like quite so productive anymore. I missed out for quite a few years on those.

But the point of me saying all this, the point of me telling you all these kind of random anecdotes from my life, is to demonstrate that I was so busy being passionately and stubbornly and lovingly Jewish, that there wasn’t really room for anything else. I wasn’t thinking about filling in the other blanks of my identity. Or maybe I was just so scared of threatening the primacy of the one thing that seemed to so wholly encapsulate who I was.

It wasn’t until around two and a half years ago, when I was kind of, you know, starting to reach the peak of sort of being a Jew, Jewish involvement – in UJS and Limmud, and in my youth movement, Hanoar Hatzioni – that suddenly there was space for something else. I guess I felt secure and grounded enough in those constellations of Jewishness I’d sort of built around me and loved, that I could for the first time look around and explore other parts of my identity.

And I noticed for the first time there was a new difference that I didn’t really see as much before, and something that was really quite pervasive and very emotionally profound to me. From inside the fort of my Jewishness, my Jewish fort – lovely that, isn’t it – it was safe to explore other things. And so, I embarked upon a journey that allowed me to recognize my disabled identity as completely a part of and intertwined with my Jewishness and myself.

So, although I’d always been so annoyed when this happened… I never used to mind so much when this… did, despite the fact that it happened far more often. Now, I do mind.

In the same way that I would question, what does it mean if someone says I don’t look ‘Jewish’, I’ve begun to question what it means when someone says I don’t look deaf. In both situations, the person speaking is trying to give a compliment. But in reality, neither statement is. This is because, when somebody tells me I don’t look deaf, what they’re really saying is that I don’t fit the expectations of looking, sounding or feeling like a disabled person.

Others want – in their perceived good nature – to praise me for somehow convincing them that actually, there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with me. But in reality there isn’t anything ‘wrong’ with me at all. When it comes to the understanding and perception of disability, there is something wrong with society.

There is something wrong with society because it wants to praise me for being able to outwardly hide my deafness. But I don’t want to legitimize a narrative that needs me to overcome my hearing impairment, and, more importantly, overcome my disabled identity.

There’s a tiny cardboard box, which society has labelled ‘deaf’, and it has crammed into it all the misunderstandings, and stereotypes, and expectations that people have of the disabled. But it’s a box that very few of us with disabilities actually fit into, and I’m tired of the heavy-duty parcel tape that’s trying to keep me squeezed in.

I don’t want to accept society’s drive to maintain words and labels like this as coded or negative quantifiers. And I don’t want to accept others’ need to make me ‘pass’ the test of being ‘normal’.

Tonight, I refuse to ‘pass’. And I ask all of you to stop ‘passing’ with me.

I’m sure Jewishness and being Jewish means something different to each and every person in this room. And that’s before we’ve even tried to step out the door. But we’ve probably all let others fill in those blanks for us of what Jewishness means, in exactly the same way, without thinking twice about it. I think recognizing that about ourselves is difficult. It certainly was for me.

But, it’s time now to take hold of the pen, or, for my fellow millennials, to take hold of our keyboards, or take hold of our thumbs. We must ensure that we are in control of how our identities are mediated by others, and that we don’t allow others to fill in the blanks for us.

We must always remember that it is we, solely, who should be in control of our own identities. These blanks have the potential to haunt us, and oppress us, for the rest of our lives. But as Jews, as women, as the disabled, as the LGBT community, as the underdog – we exist as champions of resistance. And the ripple effect that we can ignite, when we refuse to relinquish the remits of our identities, is immense.

The blanks in our lives, and in our society, are powerful. But please, never forget, that the way you fill them in holds the most power of all.
Thank you.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License
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