A Reflection on Community

First night of Chanukah 2020

This is one of a series of stories I am publishing over the eight days of Chanukah — my explainer about Chanukah is here.

It is quite a year for reflection. Celebrations, holidays, birthdays, anniversaries. They mark our lives out. And this year, they are different. We have spent more time in closer groups and sometimes, alone. We have been through a collective trauma in a way few of us could imagine. Many, too many, will have their own personal traumas which have become figures and numbers, but are each names, lives, hopes and dreams.

On this, the day that Chanukah begins, it seems right to spend the time thinking about what has changed in the last year. Last year, I don’t think I noticed when it was Chanukah, except when I saw the large Chanukiah (note for pedants, they are not ‘menorahs’ because they have seven branches — the Chanukiah has nine branches) in Trafalgar Square. This year, I have bought a little one for my house and have my candles ready to go.

Photo by Alan Levine (Flickr)

What has changed? My faith. or lack of it haven’t. I don’t believe more in a unseen entity. I don’t have more faith than I ever have done, which I’d say lies along the ‘broadly sceptical except when in deep distress or despair when I’ll try anything including random prayer’. What has changed has been the yearning and need for a community. When we look for community, we can look around us, physically. It could be the community we live in and/or the community we work in. The people we see when we go to the shops or on our daily walks. It could be the group of friends we have and organisations we are involved with, maybe parents at a school or a coalescing around a hobby or interest. It might be a shared political view or outlook. Communities exist online and in the ‘real’ world. They exist in all the spaces humans inhabit. We live in communities and we create communities. Sometimes we choose communities — including communities of interest. Sometimes we don’t have a choice about where we are born, the families we are born into and the people who live near to us. It can also be a part of the people who look like you, live like you, speak the same language as you, whether literally or metaphorically. When I lived in Palermo, I was part of a small community of anglophones and their spouses/partners. We often met at weekends and had pizzas together, grateful for the opportunity to speak English and reminiscence about our favourite curries — before returning to our Italian lives.

Increasingly our communities are online and we don’t always have the physical contact or day to day exchanges of niceties that might have been the case not so many years ago. We can, more easily, find people with the interests we share.

I had been more aware, over the past few years, of my identity as a Jewish woman. As someone who hadn’t thought twice about it for decades, after all, religion didn’t interest me, it was the feeling that my identity was under attack that made me more eager to claim the identity which was mine.

When I saw, mostly on Twitter, but not exclusively, people misunderstand and misinterpret what it means to be Jewish and what it is to be part of a Jewish community, I felt, with some irony, knowing I wasn’t really a very ‘good’ Jew or remotely representative of the Anglo-Jewish community I had grown up in, that I needed to try to explain because, what had been obvious to me from the day I was born, was ‘different’ to other people. Attacks on the basic structures of our community, made me seek them out all the more.

It was the first lockdown, that led me to actively seek out a Jewish community to be a part of again. It sounds casual but this is a massive move. I live relatively near to a Reform Synagogue so it wasn’t too challenging to identify which one I would be choosing. I sent an exploratory email and a few days (and a wrong telephone number — all my fault) later, I had an extensive conversation with someone there — about things I hadn’t spoken aloud about for decades. I spoke about what being Jewish meant to me and how it shaped who I am — how I turned away and then decided to reconnent.

Over the months, I met (socially distanced in a local park), members of the community, who could not have been more welcoming and were reassuringly diverse. I joined some zoom ‘socials’, educational events and talks, even tuned in the services which had been common to me from my childhood. The tunes and prayers hit me at my core. This was something I could never leave behind again. Of course, I am fortunate that one of the things my father left me, to take care of was the a fading photocopy of the Ketubah, the Jewish marriage certificate (usually an ornate affair) — between him and my mother, which is most commonly used as ‘evidence’ of Jewishness for membership purposes. There are other ways but providing your parents’ ketubah is pretty standard and would be the first call for evidence of being Jewish.

Being in a community has changed something about me. I have friends and I have conversations but coming back to a group of people, of different ages, backgrounds, experiences and political views, to whom I don’t need to explain myself to, is delightfully reassuring. Of course, it’s a community I don’t yet know well, although I’ve been dipping in and out of events over the last few months. I don’t know how involved I’ll be when we get back to ‘normal’. I still haven’t stepped foot in the synagogue and have met very few people, it feels right.

As I prepare to light my candles for Chanukah, I can reflect on what we have lost and what we have discovered over the last year. I think this is a year of change for all of us, in different ways, community may or may not be part of it. But having an identity which is wrapped up in work, and ‘social work’ community, has led me to reflect that, well, maybe I need to reappraise. I have, definitely over the last couple of years, felt that the professional community I was so proud to be a part of, is less welcoming, more frosty, because I have stated, explicitly that I am Jewish and because I have concerns about the lack of interest in antisemitism when I would have expected more support. Maybe that doesn’t quite ‘fit’ the role that we are expected to take, politically. It has been incredibly painful for me to see, and live through.

When you feel rejected on the basis of what you are, rather than who you are. But it has given me a sharper understanding of the difference that I have always known. I may be able to hide it at times, which, itself is a privilege, but it can never not be a part of me.

It has been a genuine sadness and shock to see how misunderstood antisemitism is within the group of people I had hoped would be allies. This is, eventually, what leads one to reflect.

On this first night of Chanukah, I am able to reflect on what I have lost, over this year, with the community I live among, but also of the glimmers of hope and of light, that are found amid the rubble of despair and loss. For me, that is partly what this festival, at the beginning of the winter months means. The light is brief but it provides enough hope to keep me going from day to day.

Social worker. Mostly mental health