In Melbourne, December’s rapid build up of speed and intensity finally makes way to sweaty sloth.
For many in Australia, summer holidays begin with Christmas. Our largely secular nation shifts itself around this Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus: end of year parties, children’s ballet concerts, wrap ups of the year and podcasts reference Christmas.
My own celebration of summer this year includes gathering some podcasts and blogs recommended to me by my university hipster niece. With time to listen and time to walk I downloaded a few to sample on my ambles around the park, looking forward to uncovering a jewel or two of undiscovered literary beauty. I anticipated many hours of satisfying arty discussion as I shuffled and sorted on my phone, heading out the front door.
I first selected an episode of an arts and culture round up reviewing an exhibition of Ai Wei Wei and Andy Warhol at the National Gallery of Victoria, which I had been to see and enjoyed. I was keen to hear someone erudite and urbane talk about this illuminating coupling of popular culture iconoclasts.
I started my journey to the park and to enlightenment and my troubles began. I was immediately irritated by the conversation: young men gabbed incoherently, chortled and guffawed at inane in-jokes, deadened my spirits with dull and narcissistic anecdotes. I nearly switched quickly, but before I did something happened that captured my attention and really raised my ire.
The annoying preliminary banter settled on Christmas. The host, Luke, introduced his sidekick, Jared, and started talking about Chanukah because apparently Jared has a “Jewish background”.* Which is really an awkward way of saying that he’s Jewish. “Is it Chanukah?”, Jared the Jewish guy asked, a little too pointedly. It was not. Chanukah was long gone. Luke made jocular reference to Chrismukkah, a hybrid festival that acknowledges Jews and the rest of the non Christian population.
Jared with the “Jewish background” started sounding oddly defensive, strangely distancing himself from Jewish identity and practice. I visualised him squirming.
As I walked on I attended to the complex politics at play: Luke framed Jared’s identity in a way that distanced him from the distasteful implications of active and current Jewish identity while leaving him with a colourful and interesting heritage. I bristled but kept listening.
I was then astonished to hear Jared claim his Jewish “background” in a yet more compromising way. He said, “at this time of year all Jews are doing is selling things to Christians and putting the money in the bank.” I think I gasped audibly in my summer quiet suburban street. Was Jared being ironic? Did he think he was being audacious in a bold Seinfeldean way? Or was he appropriating anti-Semitism to align himself with the non-Jewish world he seems to covet?
At the heart of this exchange I heard the awkward shifting of a Jew in a non-Jewish world. Did Jared do the dance of the Diaspora Jew?
This conversation raised many questions and reflections beyond the particular situation and identity of this unknown young man and it forced me to consider the changing status of Jews in the current Australian climate. In Australia Jews can participate in all aspects of civil society without legal limitations. There has been relatively little anti-Semitism and no structural prohibition against their owning land, being educated, practising a profession, voting, standing for parliament, participating in democracy. Jews have had freedom to practise their religion unheeded.
And yet on the podcast I heard an Australian Jew make a slippery manoeuvre away from Jewish identity in order to inhabit a more comfortable position in an increasingly uneasy local political climate.
2015 was a year of international terror. In Paris at the Hyper-Cacher supermarket Diaspora Jews were targeted because they were Jews. In a context of violent racial tension around the world, Jared’s response is one legitimate impulse, but it made me sad that as a secular Jew he felt obligated to slide and hide; that he could not find a way to own his Jewish identity in this Diaspora setting. It made me sad to hear his lack of confidence in Australia’s pluralism and diversity.
But I do not know Jared and I’m projecting an elaborate backstory onto him and reading a great deal into a brief conversation he had on a podcast.
So happy Chrismukkah and spare a thought for the unusual freedom of being Jewish in Australia, where Jared can admit to being Jewish not just of “Jewish heritage”, and Jews are able to participate fully in civil society. Jared can be a broadcaster, governor-general, attorney-general or prime minister if he wishes. A reminder of these liberties is my Chrismukkah gift.
*Names have been changed.