Christchurch resident Sara Green* reflects on what it was like growing up Jewish in New Zealand, and what it means to be an ethnic minority today.
My initial intent with this essay was to give a personal perspective of how it felt to belong to an ethnic minority in New Zealand. Then the world as I knew it shifted for the second time in eight and a half years.
In ten minutes, the personal became not just national, but global and could no longer be ignored.
Being a member of an ethnic minority in this country took on new meaning and attracted new consequences. If a white supremacist could attempt to rid the world of as many Muslims as possible, he could as easily gun for any minority, any group that was not white, Christian or heterosexual.
How dare he forever change my sleepy, naïve, beautiful city that was finally managing to restore itself after a series of massive earthquakes? How dare he put Christchurch on the map in this way?
The larger mosque, Masjid Al Noor, is in my part of town. It was Muslims this time, but what if he’d honed his hatred for Jews, not Muslims? It’s a primitive, self-centred, self-protective response. But it’s happened often enough over the centuries.
I never thought New Zealand was big enough or important enough for terrorists to bother with. Too small to make a splash in the global pond. But my husband has always said, “It will happen eventually. We’re an easy target.” Even green, leafy, sleepy Christchurch.
He was right, and I mourned. Christchurch mourned for the Muslim community’s terrible loss.
I believe I’m no different from anyone else (false, of course: everyone’s different). But I’m human. As Shakespeare’s Shylock said, “Do I not bleed?”. Although I’m different, if I try hard enough, I can be (or almost be) the same and deserve to be treated the same. Perhaps, if I don’t talk about my difference, we can all pretend it isn’t there.
No, my difference can never be eliminated. It’s the white rhino in the room. Some will like me despise it, others will like me for it. Still, others will never like me because of it, and now I’m too old to care. Like it or not, others will pigeon-hole me if they choose.
Discovering who you are is a developmental process that poses more difficulties for some than others. It may feel more urgent for those on the fringe, for those from minority groups, for those who stand alone, wishing to assimilate, hoping – even expecting – to be accepted as one of the majority.
I realise I could as easily be describing a terrorist in the making: seeking common beliefs and purpose, a sense of belonging to a group. But with the necessary addition of alienation, hate, deep-seated anger and vengeance, as well as a touch of paranoia, grandiosity and narcissism.
My father was an agnostic with atheistic leanings and my mother Jewish but not religious. This made for a happy philosophical partnership: as in everything, my parents met halfway. And I thought I was ‘half-Jewish’, although which half I wasn’t sure, nor was I sure what the other half comprised.
Not until I was eleven, in my last year of primary school, did I realise I was Jewish – wholly, completely – because of matrilineal descent (much later I was told that this was a concession to protect children born of rape during wars and pogroms. Not the sort of thing my parents would tell a teenager. But some believe it goes back to the Torah and the founding matriarchs of the Nation of Israel. For me, the former seems more plausible, and relevant still today).
In my teens, like anyone else, I needed a pack to run with. This new identity – being Jewish – gave me entry to ‘a pack’.
Starting high school in 1954, I discovered a handful of other Jewish girls. They were ‘properly’ Jewish with two Jewish parents and had attended Synagogue services on Saturdays and High Holidays. In the days of daily Christian worship in state schools, Jewish students and the occasional ‘other’ with outlying religious views could ask to be excused from morning assembly on religious grounds. I joined this clique in the music room. Throughout these years, I experienced no antisemitism, no bullying, no snide remarks – nothing at all about being Jewish. It seemed neither a curiosity nor a black mark against me.
But I also needed social connectedness outside of school, a group to hang out with, and it needed to be mixed. Various school friends invited me to their church socials. But I didn’t belong there. I felt awkward, apologetic, and my adolescent angst burgeoned. I felt like an outsider. That is until I found a Jewish youth group called Habonim.
Habonim was (and still is) non-religious, but strongly Zionist in philosophy with affiliated groups throughout the Diaspora. It arose out of the early 20th century European migration that established kibbutzim (collective farms) in the then-Palestine, now Israel. Kibbutzniks worked the soil and made pockets of biblical land ‘flow with milk and honey’ again. Habonim’s mission was to encourage young people to emigrate to Israel, and a significant number of those I knew in my youth eventually did.
But for me, Habonim was simply a group in which I felt at home. Like extended family. I lost my sense of difference. I’ve always felt the plight of the immigrant, the isolation from extended family. My father was ‘abandoned’ here by his family as a very young man, and my mother arrived alone as a nineteen-year-old.
Being Jewish is an ethnicity, reflected in genetic makeup, independent of compliance with a set of religious beliefs so it can’t be discarded or changed like a religion. You can hold contradictory beliefs and discard the rituals, but you’re still Jewish. And for young people, it’s difficult to maintain their Jewishness within the ever-diminishing Jewish communities of New Zealand.
The local pool of acceptable mates was fast drying up when I was young. Our parents had not become exiles (or immigrants) to protect their right to live and worship freely and openly, only to have their children ‘marry out’ and give them grandchildren who were not, in their eyes, Jewish. Many families moved overseas to larger communities. Young adults drifted away to seek Jewish partners in Melbourne, Sydney, New York or London, the ongoing exodus further depleting these small communities.
Despite being non-religious, I was willing to be married under a chuppa in the local synagogue by an orthodox rabbi, in respect for the feelings of others and at the expense of my father who, on this occasion, suffered discrimination for not being Jewish and was not permitted to walk me up the aisle. It was a humiliating experience for him, which I now bitterly regret. But I was young, and all I wanted was to be married, mindless of details or ceremony.
Today, all New Zealand Jewish communities are small and some have disappeared completely. Many young people ‘marry out’, following the worldwide trend toward acceptance of cross-cultural marriages.
One Jewish extended family took me under their wing as an adolescent, cosseted me, and instilled in me some of the basic knowledge and cultural rituals of Judaism, like the meaning of Passover (Pesach) and the symbolic foods that form the feast.
All my married life we have celebrated the Passover in our home, in recognition of the importance we place on personal freedom, not just for the ancient Jews, but for people of all races, creeds and religions in all countries.
As a younger adult, being Jewish was of limited importance to me. My identity as a member of the medical profession was stronger and more satisfying. And to be truthful, I wanted to be judged for myself, neither positively or negatively on the basis of a cultural or ethnic connection. So I didn’t advertise the fact that I was Jewish. I didn’t deny it either. I didn’t think it relevant. In retrospect, it was probably common knowledge anyway. I was never aware of being overly discriminated against for being a Jew (though I can’t say the same about being a woman).
But was I wrong in detecting a certain hostility, perhaps born of envy, when non-Jews said of some successful or prominent person, ‘of course, they’re Jewish’? If so, perhaps I can be excused for my sensitivity, arising from the legacy of thousands of years of history.
Being Jewish may be denied, but it can’t be expunged. Hitler taught us that. Even today, systematic extermination of a people may be pursued ruthlessly.
Lest we forget. We remember, but it happens again.
Jews are used to being on the move, to being expelled, from Rome in the 1st century AD, from England in 13th century and from Spain in the 15th century. They are used to being directed where they can live, to ghetto life. The Pale of Settlement (now Belarus). The Warsaw Ghetto. Pogroms. Jew-baiting.
How can people behave in such a way towards members of their own society?
It’s simple: create an enemy for political reasons, blame them, reduce them, dehumanise them, hate them, and then you can believe you are purifying society by exterminating them. Just as it happened in Nazi Germany. Just as it happened in Christchurch on March 15 when the gunman set about eliminating Muslims – 51 real people.
The Berlin Holocaust Museum (re)humanises victims of Nazi extermination. It was Manny Finkelhor who was being rifle-whipped. It was Rachel Eichelbaum, with her children at her skirts, who was struggling with her load. It was Rabbi Stein who was japed by Nazi soldiers. And each prod, each obscenity, each vain hope ate into me and released a flood. I was my brother’s keeper, and I had failed and would fail again.
Real people with real families, going about their day to day lives; their hopes and fears, joys and sorrows. Just like any of us, just like the members of the Christchurch Muslim community.
Judaism, then, is an ethnicity, not merely a religion or a set of beliefs. It’s also a culture lived by real people.
Once I joined a book group that met in the hall of the local synagogue. One member was brought up in the Bronx in New York City, another in the East End of London. These people spoke with nostalgia and a sense of loss about a Jewish way of life, the shared cultural idiosyncrasies that made them feel at home which they miss in New Zealand.
On my first trip to Israel, I felt overwhelmed knowing that most of the people around me were Jewish. There was a security in that knowledge, despite the presence of weapons everywhere. Many of these Jews were atheists, some celebrating High Holidays for cultural rather than religious reasons.
I was struck by the huge cultural variations – black, brown, white. Since Jews had no homeland from biblical times until the mid-20th century (when Israel was established), communities settled in various parts of Europe, Russia, North Africa and Asia, acquiring over generations genetic, physical and cultural features of the local peoples.
And – horror of horrors – I noticed the hierarchy. At the time of my visit, those at the bottom of the pecking order were refugees from the dissolved Soviet Union; before that, I was told, it was the North African Jews. All Jews were clearly not equal in Israel.
Israel is a Jewish homeland and sanctuary. Yet every day its citizens, both Arabs and Jews, live with acts of terrorism and with the threat of being pushed into the sea.
It’s an unfortunate fact that you can’t alter extreme and rigid beliefs with rational argument. So we can’t change extremists, only ourselves – potentially.
Jacinda Ardern has advocated a radical new approach to terrorism, one of love and unity. But does the overwhelming display of support for the Muslim community represent a significant shift in how we New Zealanders view our ethnic minorities? Does it represent acceptance? Or is it primarily an effort to reassure ourselves that ‘He’ (the gunman) is not ‘Us’?
Overt anti-semitism is on the rise again. Misinformation is rising, playing on sympathies. If, heaven forbid, our Jewish community were to become a future target, would there be the same outpouring of love and support we saw toward the Muslim community?
No one seems particularly concerned about the swastikas that have appeared since March 15. Nor that Jewish cemeteries are frequently desecrated. Nor that for the last couple of years an Auckland synagogue has needed to employ security guards to let its congregation gather and worship in safety.
Are we, as a country, ready to set an example? Are we willing to embrace our minority cultures – all of them – to recognise, accept and celebrate the richness of difference?
To support our ethnic minorities as ‘Us’?
* A pseudonym.