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You Look Jewish But You Don’t Dress Jewish

Judith VanderveldeFilmed at JW3 2013

We all live our lives in bubbles. My JDOV talk explains how discussing simple things like sweets and football and having encounters with people outside of our comfort zone can have a significant impact and help us to burst these bubbles and stop them becoming walls.

At the time of giving this talk, Judith Vandervelde was the Senior Educator at the Jewish Museum, London where she became a specialist in the delivery of Judaism to non-Jewish audiences. Having studied Ancient and Modern History at Oxford University she went on to train as a secondary school History teacher and, after 9 happy years at the Jewish Museum returned to teaching in 2015.

Hamid is a 15 year old Muslim boy who lives in Tower Hamlets with his Bangladeshi born parents. He goes to Mosque regularly and attends the local secondary school. He is a confident boy who is not afraid to ask questions. I am privileged in my job to meet thousands of students like Hamid in my day job at the Jewish Museum and in the Outreach work I do in schools. Most of the schools I work with are Central or East London and a very high proportion of those students are Muslim. It is from the Muslim students that I learn the most and I think they probably learn the most from me. We have common ground and it is a very unique and magical experience. I come into the classroom often unannounced with a suitcase full of artefacts from the Jewish Museum and I introduce myself ‘My name is Judith Vandervelde and I am an educator at the Jewish Museum’. And the hands shoot up.

1) Miss are you Jewish?
2) Miss, you look Jewish but don’t dress Jewish?
3) Is your suitcase Prada?
4) Are you Israeli?
5) Why do You hate us?

Quite a lot of questions, let’s try and unpack some of Hamid’s questions where do they come from? Where do his preconceived ideas about Judaism and about Jewish people come from? You’re going to have a look in Hamid’s bubble but before we do that we need to have a look into whom we are. We all probably reside in various bubbles. I reside in a Jewish bubble, we tend to mix with people just like us and Hamid is no exception. So when I meet him it is completely an alien idea, he doesn’t know who I am or what I’m about but he has questions to ask me. Let’s take a look inside Hamid’s bubble, start at probably the most important place, start with home. You think that he is confused, you should meet his parents. Not born here they find the culture in which they find themselves in in London, very uncomfortable, they find in particular the school they send their son to very secular very alien to the culture and the values that they hold so dear. Hamid tells me he has family that live near Stamford Hill and has seen Jewish people, but the Jewish people don’t speak to him or his cousins and his uncles and similarly his uncles, aunts and cousins don’t speak to the Jewish people, entirely separate. Another sphere of influence in his world is of course the media. Now Hamid is like all teenagers loves T.V , films and he is aware that there is a big body of Holocaust films but they don’t seem to interest him. His main information about Jewish people, comes from American sitcoms, things like The Simpsons/ The Big Bang Theory/ Southpark rather nuanced American, quite hard to understand. He tells me that his favourite film is Borat and he and his friends find it absolutely hilarious because of the anti-Semitism. He is very surprised when I challenge him and say that Borat is played by a Jewish actor actually what we are laughing at is the silliness and stupidity of the anti-Semitism rather than the anti-Semitism itself. The throw the Jew down the well they find absolutely hilarious. So, that’s his second sphere of influence.

His third sphere is school he spends a lot of time at school and it is in conflict with a lot of the messaging he is given at home. Jews and Judaism appear mostly in two subject areas, the first one is history now as far as he is concerned, Jews tend to be the centre of the pity magnet, for that I’m referring to the Holocaust, Hamid has studied World War II in his primary school and again in year 9, in year 10 and now he is in year 11. He is genuinely quite interested in the subject, however he finds the repetition a bit tiresome and he tells me well it happened quite a long time ago and it’s really to do with him, it’s not his history. The other subject area he encounters Jewish people is the one lesson a week, for one term his R.E lesson is on Judaism and that is quite unusual some schools don’t study Judaism at all. His non-Jewish R.E teacher is trying to deliver Judaism to him in one lesson a week for one term, tends to rely on the Orthodox viewpoint that’s where she starts from, with occasional references to reform. Hamid and his teacher are very confused by progressive Judaism. For Hamid in particular and his teacher it’s an anathema there’s no equivalent in Islam, for them it’s very difficult to understand from their vantage point what it is what it means and so he is left feeling very confused.

His forth point of reference is his friendship circle, now here he tells me how on social media, in the playground, they use the word ‘Jew’ quite a lot. He’s little bit embarrassed to tell me this because e it’s used as a derogatory term. People refer to ‘you Jew’ or ‘you Jew this’ which means you take something and he tells me I’m aware of it, it’s similar to the use of the word gay, it’s in his word a diss and no harm meant miss. Interesting.

The fifth area that seems to influence him is one that I can’t fathom at all, he seems to have age-old anti-Semitic ideas that all Jews are rich and mean, Jews are controlling the media. He has this, it’s as if it’s in the ether. I can’t quite work out where he gets this viewpoint but it seems inherent in everything he asks. Ok so what is clear is that he hasn’t met me, he hasn’t met us, he hasn’t met -liberal or modern Jewish British people and I would suggest that to actually challenge his preconceived idea is to encourage encounters. But what is it that I want him to meet. I think we are all aware that the Judaism that we inhabit is multi-tiered, we all know Jewish people that will happily eat pork and yet prioritise lighting candles on a Friday night. We know Jewish people who go to synagogue on Shabbat morning and then Arsenal on Shabbat afternoon. Similarly, we know others who won’t switch on a light during Shabbat. How on earth can we explain this to Hamid he’s not that interested and it’s incredibly complicated. So, the best way to do it is to make it simple, to start with objects, to start with something which is a safe space from where to have a discussion, to start with something from where to have an encounter, a personal encounter. So I take with me in my suitcase, objects, some of them from home, some of them from the Jewish museum and the first one I’m going to show you is actually from my rubbish bin. So I bring with me a pack of haribo sweets, Hamid’s a bit disappointed because it’s actually just the package and he looks at this and this instantly resonates with all the students. Interestingly I came across this object as being more useful than others, I used to take lots of different, but I came across this packaging that the students really picked up on. Hamid tells me that within his community they refer to Haribo as Harambo – based on the idea that they are Haram not hallal because he tells me in my community we can’t eat Pork Gelatine in sweets. Uh huh so I tell him there are many people in my community who won’t eat haribo because they have pork gelatine in so these are kosher haribo. The next question is very telling. He asks me. Can I eat those?
All of a sudden we are on the level, it’s not us and them, it’s about ‘we’ and it’s about something as silly as sweets but all of a sudden it’s on the level. From here we quite swiftly move on to discussions about similarities and differences in Judaism and Islam and these actually come from him, they’re not from me. It’s at his pace as he wants to talk about them. And so similarities and differences There are actually more laws in kashrut which is why the journey between hallal and kashrut is not both ways. We talk about that, we talk about how it is permissible to drink alcohol in Judaism and not in Islam.

It moves on to linguistic similarities and differences and I tell him that I can read Hebrew and speak a little bit, very very little , this he loves similarly he can read Arabic, his spoken Arabic isn’t that good. I tell him I’m going to try something in my bad Hebrew let’s see if you can answer in Arabic so I say Shalom Aleichem and he replies Wa ‘alaykum al-salaam. And often actually it is the non-Muslim students who reply, which is very interesting. Form linguistic similarities we sometimes talk about numbers can you count in Hebrew and Arabic, wahad ehad, arba arba, very interesting the similarities and it all comes from looking at objects. Another object I take with me is a Tanach. Now when some of the students see this object they don’t want to touch it, they feel it is haram, nothing to do with them, they’re very cautious. Ah, it opens the same way as the Quran, all the objects that I take in some ways mean something to them, a sheitl, wig, a yad, a tzedakah box, every time it’s the objects we talk about that enable us then to have a broader discussion.

The third item then is an item from home, I’m not here to represent the hugely complicated Jewish community, I’m just one Jewish woman that they’re meeting. So I show them something that belongs to my sons, hoping it is something that they might be interested in my son’s Liverpool Kippah. Now this causes immense discomfort not because I’m working in London schools and they’re confused why a woman who is clearly from London would have a son who is Liverpool fan that’s another story. But they say miss how can you have something secular on a religious object? How can that be? What does your Rabbi think? This is a gift of a question to me. My Rabbi he doesn’t like it, my Rabbi he’s an arsenal fan. Now here this has blown Hamid’s world, he not only had understood my Rabbi, I know which football team, this is all of a sudden putting Jewish people into the normal mix and I tell him if you saw my son wearing this, he’s telling you a lot about himself. He’s telling you he’s Jewish, he’s telling you he’s a Liverpool fan; he’s sharing information about himself. If you met my son, he doesn’t stop being a Liverpool fan when he’s in Synagogue and he doesn’t stop being Jewish when he’s at a Liverpool game it is part of the parcel of who he is. This idea of multiple identities is something as Jews we are very aware of but of course it exists in other communities as well and from this we very gently touch on what it means to have identities about other nationalities. Israelis. It comes up. I tell them I pay taxes in Britain, this is where I was born and bred this is where my grandparents were born. However I have attachments to another country. Again that’s the same for me, whether it be Turkey, Afghanistan again a connection has been made. There is a certain irony in talking about this in a J-DOV talk because the whole encounter is based on questions and I’m acutely aware that there isn’t an opportunity to ask questions in this format. I suppose I hope that in the hour I have with Hamid and his classmates that I have to some extent challenged his preconceived ideas but I can’t change the world. If Hamid leaves and is able to talk about Jewish people using the word some Jewish people rather than all Jewish people I’ve had a modicum of success. If I have encouraged Hamid to go on a journey to find out more, I am happy. But the truth is there’s only so much you can do. What we need to do is to encourage these encounters.

If were to meet Hamid in 5 years down the line, he’s a 20 year old student the likelihood is well first of all our paths probably wouldn’t cross. I’m very very fortunate I can find him in school, that’s a great place to start so our paths wouldn’t cross and second of all he’s much more inhibited he’s not so willing to ask questions. Unfortunately he’s become more embroiled with the situation in the Middle East, the opportunity has been lost, there is a magic moment for learning, the 14, 15 year old is at a point in their life where they are willing to take on what they know, challenge it and ask questions. The other day I was invited to the East London mosque for a meeting and I realise I very much too come from a bubble and the shoe was on the other foot, on that occasion I was the one asking questions and so all I want to put to you is that actually that we need to encourage these encounters it is because by having encounters with people outside of our comfort zone safe spaces , places where things can be discussed on the level, softly, not going for the hard hitting difficult stuff but actually talking about things like football and sweets whatever it is that’s all of a sudden a conversation. If we don’t try and burst these bubbles I fear that they will become rules.

Thank you.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License