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Pump up the volume

Raymond SimonsonFilmed at Limmud Conference 2015

When it comes to thinking about Jewish identity and the challenges facing the community of British Jews, it’s conversation that most interests and concerns me. In fact, it’s what drives me. I believe that in order to ensure we have a vibrant, engaged, revitalised British-Jewish community, we have to increase the quality, variety & volume of Jewish conversation. In this talk, I pay tribute to my father who inspired a love of conversation in me, and look back at my family’s history to gain an insight into why the volume dial has historically been turned down in Jewish public discourse…. and why I want it turned up to 11!

Raymond is CEO of JW3, London’s first Jewish Community Centre, and sits on the advisory boards of various Jewish communal organisations in the UK. He has a BA in Jewish History, an MA in Applied Anthropology and Community & Youth Work, and over 20 years’ experience in informal Jewish education, leadership development and community building. He has always worked cross-communally, and was the first full time Executive Director of Limmud, a former UJIA Director of Informal Jewish Education, and spent a decade serving in the education department of the Jewish Agency for Israel, working with thousands of Jewish educators and youth leaders across the UK. Raymond is the proud author of the chapter “Limmud: A Unique Model of Transformative Jewish Learning” published in the ‘International Handbook of Jewish Education’. He is grateful that his wife and two children are incredibly patient.

Exactly 14 years and 4 days ago, on the 25th of December 2001, my father Mossy Simonson died suddenly of an unexpected heart attack home in London. At that exact same time, I was at Limmud Conference, in the middle of giving a talk on British-Jewish identity.

When someone asked me recently what it is I miss most about my Dad, I told them apart from his legendary sense of humour, it was our CONVERSATIONS. I realised that “In conversation” was how we spent most of our time together. Whether in the car, or over a meal, or sitting next to each other at White Hart Lane watching our team play, we were always in conversation, and our relationship centred around conversation.

And when I think back to what most interests me about British-Jewish identity, I realise it’s CONVERSATION that interests me and concerns me. In fact, it’s conversation that drives me.

I believe that in order to ensure we have a vibrant, engaged, revitalised British-Jewish community, we need to increase the QUALITY, the VARIETY & the VOLUME of Jewish conversation.

So do I mean first of all by QUALITY?

In the mid-90s, British-Jewish philosopher, Theodore Zeldin, delivered a seminal series of talks live on BBC Radio 4 entitled: “Conversation: How Talk Can Change Your Life”.
In it, Zeldin defined real conversation as “a meeting of minds”, arguing that “when minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts; they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, and exchange in new trains of thought.” He then went on to give one of my favourite statements about the power of high quality conversation, claiming conversation “doesn’t just reshuffle the cards, it creates NEW cards.”

Like Zeldin, I believe in the power of conversation to be transformational. However, in order for us to create new cards in the Jewish community, we need to increase the quality of much of the Jewish conversation within our community. At the very least, I believe we need to increase the quality of public Jewish discourse, especially when it comes to topics such as Israel, or denominational differences just as examples. For me, too often, Jewish conversation in the public domain is a bit too reminiscent of the arguments I witness in my children’s school playground.

It’s a little bit too much, who can shout the loudest or make the most ad hominem attacks. In fact I’m always a little bit surprised not to hear a Jewish public debate end with that classic school playground rejoinder “my Dad’s bigger than your Dad”!

To be frank, I find this lack of quality of public Jewish conversation to be embarrassing. Is it any wonder that so many of our bright young Jewish people are put off being engaged in their Jewish selves and in Jewish community life when this is their experience? Now don’t be mistaken for thinking that the high quality of Jewish conversations you’ve been experiencing this week at Limmud, or in the JDOV series, reflects the norm. Of course, there are plenty of places where there is fantastic, meaningful, dynamic Jewish conversation. But in my opinion, the majority of Jewish conversation in the public domain, whether that’s between Jews, or about Jewish issues, too often it’s of an inferior and I would argue damaging quality.

So we need to increase the quality. And it’s not just the QUALITY of Jewish conversation we need to increase, it’s the VARIETY too. We need to widen the definition of what counts as a Jewish topic for conversation.

In Pirke Avot, Chapter 5, Mishnah 22, we read, in reference to the Torah:
“Ben Bag Bag omer, haphach bah, v’haphach bah, v’chula bah”

“Ben Bag-Bag said, ‘turn it, turn it for everything is within it”

The more we study our sources, the more we can understand that everything under the sun is contained within. Torah, Talmud all the great works of the Jewish scholars and all our Jewish texts have something to say about every aspect of human existence, so it’s important that we engage with and learn from all of it. To me, a natural conclusion to draw from this text, is that if everything is contained within it, then every topic is ripe for Jewish conversation.

So I’ve often thought that “turn it, turn it, everything is in it” would be a great slogan for Limmud or for JW3, the Jewish Community Centre I run, with topics on everything under the sun that act as starting points, multiple starting points for meaningful Jewish conversation.
Now I realise that all of this might seem completely obvious to most of you here, but it’s pretty clear to me that Jewish public discourse is dominated by a very limited number of topics.

From my experience, it’s very rare to hear a conversation being played out in the Jewish media or in the world of politics for example, on a Jewish topic, that isn’t either Israel or anti-Semitism or the Holocaust. And more troubling for me is that if you took a year’s worth of front pages from the Jewish media in this country, what you would find is around 40-50% of those are around Israel, about 30-40% are some kind of negative “they’re-out-to-get-us” story – the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, what Jeremy Corbyn said today and why we should be fearful of that – and all that leaves is what 10-20% of the rest for the rest of Jewish life and learning and culture and community? For me, that’s pretty depressing.

Now that’s not to say, of course, that Israel and Holocaust and antisemitism are not important conversations. Of course they are. It’s just that if you take Jewish life today and turn it and turn it, they’re not the only things in it. And if we want the younger generations to grow up being passionate about being engaged with their Jewish selves and with Jewish community, we have to let them see, and we have to encourage them, that there are Jewish conversations, important Jewish conversations, to be had on all manner of topics, from the EU and the Syrian refugee crisis, from the books of Philip Roth and Naomi Alderman to the music of Achinoam Nini and Naomi Less and Irving Berlin …to everything under the sun.

So we need to increase the QUALITY and the VARIETY of Jewish conversation. But even if we succeed on both of these fronts – and we will – that won’t be enough. There will be no “dayenu” from me unless we complete the recipe by pumping up the Jewish VOLUME.
Now of these 3 aspects, this is the one that most excites me and animates me.

In Philip Roth’s great novel Deception, his American-Jewish narrator in the UK observes:
“In England, whenever I’m in a public space, a restaurant, a party, the theater, and somebody happens to mention the word ‘Jew,’ I notice that the voice just drops just a little…. even Jews.”

Now that chimes with my own experience as a child growing up, when I would see Jewish adults, when talking in public about certain topics, certain words they would lower their voice, when talking about somebody that’s got “cancer”, or when talking about a couple who were getting “divorced” or even embarrassingly to say that somebody is “Jewish”. And I would hear that word be said ‘Jewish’. And for me it’s quite upsetting as an adult to realise that that applies even to this day, that for so many people, the word Jewish is a word to be whispered in public.

This phenomenon of what I call the “whispering Jews” is something that was powerfully highlighted by British-Jewish writer Naomi Alderman. I’m sure many of you have read her award-winning novel Disobedience, set in North London’s Jewish community. In one very powerful scene, the book’s main character Ronit, declares in exasperation: “It’s as though Jews in this country have made an investment in silence. There’s a vicious circle here, in which the Jewish fear of being noticed and the natural British reticence interact. They feed off each other so that British Jews cannot speak, cannot be seen, and value absolute invisibility over all other virtues.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going quite that far and I don’t fully agree with that. But there is something to say in Ronit’s angry outburst that rings true, at least a little bit, for me. Now that’s not to say that I don’t have some sympathy for this desire for many for invisibility and silence – far from it. My mother, Danielle, was born in Nazi-occupied France towards the end of the Holocaust. Her grandparents, most of her aunts, uncles and cousins perished in Auschwitz.

Her sister was hidden by nuns for a period, her elder sister, and in fact my mother herself was hidden, along with my grandmother, in a false wall of a neighbour’s apartment, where my grandmother’s main role was to keep my mother silent and invisible, whilst the SS raided the neighbourhood.

By some miracle, my grandparents, my mother and her older sister managed to survive and by the end of the war they managed to flee to London to build a new life. Now being Jewish and foreign in London at that time was not easy. And those two aspects of identity, were not something that was advised to be very public about. So again invisibility and silence were valued. And the volume of the Jewish conversation was dialled right down when outside of the home.

Back to my late father, Mossy, he was born almost 20 years before my mother, in London’s East End. Now the name Mossy in the East End of London in the 1920s was not an uncommon Jewish name. It took the classic biblical name, Moshe, and anglicised it a little bit – in much the same way as other popular names of the time like Izzy or Solly took the popular Biblical names Yitzhak and Shlomo, passed them through a British filter in order to just dial the Jewish volume down a little bit.

By the time my father began his service in the Merchant Navy in World War II, he had experienced enough antisemitism to realise the best way for him to survive was also to put on that invisibility cloak. And how did he do it? He changed his name to Mick, a far from Jewish sounding name. Now his family had already lost the original surname, which was Cohen. When his grandfather, Simon Cohen, fled pogroms in Russia at the turn of the century and arrived in England with his son, Isaac. Isaac was Simons’-son and his name became simply Isaac Simonson. So for the last 50 years of my father’s life he was just Mick Simonson.

It was only during my early teens where I started hearing some of these stories about my parents’ past, and discovering my family’s past; and at this same time I started developing what I believe today is a very proud and strong Jewish identity. First in my local Jewish youth club, thanks to some inspirational Jewish youth workers; then my gap year in Israel and through my student days and now throughout my career, I’ve spent the best part of the last 3 decades engaged in the practice of dialling up the Jewish volume. I’ve rebelled against what Alderman’s character, Ronit, called the “Jewish fear of being noticed”. Now I get that both my parents had very good reason to fear being noticed Jewishly at key points in their life. But I don’t, and in my opinion, despite what some people would have us believe, the vast majority of British Jews don’t either.

So when I think again about what draws younger generations towards greater engagement in their Jewish selves and in Jewish community, and what pushes them away, I think this is a critical issue to resolve. For me it’s a problem of cognitive dissonance. The difference between on the one hand what we teach our young people about Jewish identity and pride, and on the other hand what they witness and experience for themselves when they become Jewish adults.

The British Jewish community invests millions of pounds every year in high quality programmes to engage young Jewish people, to increase their Jewish identity. Through the youth movements and the Jewish youth groups, and the Zionist youth groups, thousands of Jewish children go to youth clubs and summer schemes.

Every summer, for example, we send around 50% of all Jewish 16 year olds to Israel to engage in a month long Israel experience, where they develop and explore their Jewish identity. Where we encourage them to climb Massada to see the sunrise, we encourage them to kiss the Kotel, and we encourage them to go and buy T-shirts that say Coca Cola in Hebrew, and dance on the table-tops singing “Am Yisrael Chai”.

And then when they’re 18 or 19, they go on gap years in Israel, and we encourage to do that, and again we encourage them to studying explore their Jewish identity, to get involved in volunteering, to wear all sorts of T-shirts with Hebrew slogans on them and to dance on the table tops, singing Am Yisrael Chai.

And in any given year there are around 8,000 British-Jewish students at universities across the UK, and we invest a lot of time and money in supporting UJS in the phenomenal work they do to encourage Jewish students to be out of the Jewish closet, to be out, loud and proud, to defeat the antisemites on campus, to stand up against those who would bash Israel, and to wear their big sweatshirts that say “JEW” across the front, and you’ve guessed it, to dance on the table-tops singing ‘Am Yisrael Chai’.

But then what happens? They reach what 22, 23, they leave the bubble of the youth movement and UJS, and they enter the adult world of the Jewish community. And what’s the first thing they notice? There are very few adults dancing on the table-tops singing Am Yisrael Chai. Not in public, at least, maybe at Limmud. This Jewish pride, which they had been encouraged by us – the adult Jewish community – to develop and to show proudly their Jewish identity throughout all of these years, suddenly they can’t quite see it everywhere, it’s harder to find. And even more so, and I’ve heard this from young adults, they realise that many Jewish adults in this community are embarrassed by the sight of those Jews who are out, most visibly from the Jewish closet, who are most noticeably Jewish– the Haredim. I think people find them just a little bit too “Jewy” in public.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are of course pockets and moments of mainstream British-Jewry coming out of the Jewish closet and dialling up the volume to 11. Jewish Book Week, the UK Jewish Film Festival, Limmud – all fantastic examples of annual festivals of Jewish learning, Jewish life and Jewish culture, where they increase the quality, the variety and the volume of Jewish conversation. But I want to see the vibrant and noisy spirit of Limmud overflowing into the streets year round, not just concentrated for one week a year in the bubble of a conference centre in Birmingham.

A few weeks ago, 5,000 Jews gathered in Trafalgar Square in London for the annual celebration of Chanukah. We stood there in the most British of landmarks, at the foot of Nelson’s column, opposite the National Gallery, next to a 20 metre high Christmas Tree, and there was this outpouring, one of the greatest expressions I’ve seen of when we dial the volume up really loud in public. A joyous display of Jewish pride and identification.

And I have to tell you, that’s why Chanukah has fast become one of my favourite times of the year. I love going around London and seeing those great displays of Jewish pride lit up against the dark night skies. And I hope that every Jew that sees them, it engenders in them a sense of pride. And for those whispering Jews I hope it encourages them to step out of the closet and to dial the volume up just a little bit.

But I want to see this all year round, and not just for one week of the year. That’s why I do the job that I do. That’s what keeps me awake at night and that’s what gets me up in the morning.

So I am driven by my past and my family’s experiences, they’ve shaped who I am. When my first child was born, about 8 years ago, I had the chance to bring this conversation round full circle. My incredibly wise wife Helene and I had deep conversations about the importance of the name we give our son. And when we knew we were having a son, my wife said, we need to call him Mossy. Now I never disagree with anything my wife suggests, so that’s what we called him, Mossy Simonson. And it’s not just in the hope that he will inherit some of the many qualities and values that my father had, it’s also as a way to go back to that proud Jewish lineage, to connect him already with Jewish pride that that name for me evokes. And to ensure that the next generation of our family starts life with the Jewish volume dialled right up.

So, to finish, my blessing for my children, and for yours, is that they may live a life filled with Jewish conversations that are consistently high in QUALITY, wide in VARIETY and loud in VOLUME.

Thank you.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License