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The Holiday of Light, Not Chiaroscuro

The View From Whitechapel

Judy Batalion  |  Winter 2007  -  Number 208

  
  
 

‘Oh the Jew. Moses with his tablets — a flurry of vibrant colour! David and Absalom, an ensemble seething with presence! The light from David’s hat casts a shadow, foretelling the heated future of father and son. In Rembrandt’s canvas, the Jewish drama is retold as a masterpiece of light and dark. And in another champion canvas about Belshazzar and Daniel, the master conveys a pale Jewish hand creating the contour of yellow, Hebrew letters nearly glittering, a delicate handling of paint and palette. The origin of our aphorism ‘the writing on the wall’!

And so went chat about the Jew in the white-washed land of blue-blood art historians. We were in the heart of the British art-history establishment, the columned institute overlooking the river, minutes from Westminster. There was more:

’What a pointed contrast in tone and value to the other Jew! The Renaissance depiction at Strasbourg cathedral of the robed ‘Synagoga’, her body demented, her face blinded by a cloth — she is only partially seeing the light (unlike the more knowing, unmasked and erect ‘Ecclesia’ who has accepted both the old testament and its sequel). Oh — and the stained glass versions of the two women depict an even more deformed Jewess, a crown gently falling from her head, the representation of a body ‘en-demise’.

‘Indeed, both iconographic bodies form a poignant formal and structural juxtaposition with the detailed portrayal of the elderly Jews in the Susanna story, rendered bald and bearded by Gentileschi, as they prey upon the young, naked woman. As voracious as Tintoretto’s panicking, hungry Jews collecting the manna in the wilderness as shown from below. Of course, there is also Klaus Sluter’s finely carved Moses, his eyes eerily catching his audience, his horns casting pristine shadows on the surrounding sculpture …’

I was fresh off the boat from New York in September  2001, and, at first, I found this fantastical land of tweed off the Thames appealing. These were people who always felt ‘fine’, seemed happy, and provided me with a new romantic perception of myself: the Jew as a site of feisty sin, intense pathos, even dangerous beauty.

I was enjoying my new community and its white noise of quiet bliss, until, that is, came the official season to be jolly.

Only then did I realize that the only Jews around here were those of the Renaissance depiction. My colleagues had no concept of modern, living Jewish culture or people.

There were some clues. First — all the way from the beginning of November, I began being invited to Christmas parties — more in a month than in my entire prior North American life. It was night after night of dry white, shrivelled mini hot dogs, crumbling varieties of the danish genre named after meat, and crisp smiles, all served up in beige Primrose Hill pied-a-terres.

Second, there was the conversation that took place about twenty times a day, even in this nation of staunch secularism, that went: Darling, what are you doing for Christmas? / Nothing. / Oh, darling, poor you! / No, I’m not poor, I just don’t celebrate Christmas. I celebrate chanuka. / Sorry, dear - Chanu-what? Oh, is that the celebration with the cardboard bread?

It was impossible for me to believe that they hadn’t even heard the word. What was this complete lack of awareness, among even the educated? In the States, ‘happy chanuka’ greetings were broadcast as station breaks on all the major TV networks, especially if a school board member was up for re-election. Where in London was the media, the urban chanukiahs? Where were British Jews hiding?

So in the spirit of the holiday which represented a fight against assimilation, and which commanded that one display chanukiot in windows for the whole city to see, I decided that it was time to do some perception updating and to educate the educated; I would demonstrate to my colleagues just how fun we were, how Jewish celebrations are passionate, and tasty, and lively! Though I could barely even remember celebrating chanuka since my days at Zionist yiddishist holocaust-survivor high school, I wanted to show my Anglo-buddies the holiday — not of chiaroscuro — but of light.

So, here’s another picture.

A pre-party scene. Oil was sizzling, raw potato strips were anxiously browning in the air, eggs were waiting helplessly in large blue bowls that I had just run out to buy in Whitechapel’s local Arab market and every surface, including myself, was dusted with a smattering of matzo meal neige. My mother’s recipe sheet was playing a devious game of hide and seek with me and I had 15 minutes before my guests would arrive. Once again, my phone rang. I knew from ‘private caller’ who it was.

‘Whaaaat?’

‘Judy,’ she began. ‘I just thought that maybe it’s best you used gloves. Graters can be lethal. And I’m so far away –‘

‘I love you. Bye.’

It was always amazing how my mother worried about minutiae, and yet completely ignored the things that were actually dangerous. Like the fact that I was about to write four hundred years of Jewish history and put my tradition on the catwalk in a miniscule 1-bedroom flat in Whitechapel which best suited approximately 2 guests, and not 40. I rushed to clear another square centimeter by moving a pile of books into the oven.

Of course, in the frenzy, I slit the side of my hand on the grater.

Blood streamed into the flour, and only by miraculously locating a tissue in the chaos did I prevent the latkes from turning into a sinister, blood-tinged nightmare.

After mixing dry ingredients with wet ones, I started making balls when the doorbell rang. Access to the stairs had been temporarily blocked by my hasty space-clearing. After moving a pile of books into the shower, I got myself downstairs to the door and began to let in what was already a formed queue of invitees, on time.

Ø

     ‘Hello,’ I said to Tim at the front, hugging him. ‘It’s so fabulous that you could come. I am so happy to be here with you. I love your tie, I love your jacket. You look amaaaazing.’

He looked terrified.

‘Um, hello Judy’, he stammered, struggling. I let go of his torso so he was free to use his arms. He held one out to me, partially. ‘I brought this.’

‘Oh thank you, it’s super!’ I said, and gratefully accepted his bottle of wine, accompanied by a card that read ‘happy bar mitzvah’.

 

I chose to ignore this cultural faux-pas and concentrated on the task in hand: welcoming my guests to both Whitechapel and chanuka.

‘How does one pronounce it?’ he asked, giggling politely.

‘CHHHHanuka,’ I demonstrated, my mouth posed wide-open and fountaining a shpritz of ethnic moisture.

We entered my flat one at a time, to fit into the entrance ‘hall’.

‘Where can I put my coat?’ asked Tim

‘Throw it anywhere! On my bed!’

He stood motionless.

‘I’ll take it’, I offered. And then threw it across the room as I turned up the volume on the klezmer playing from my computer/stereo contraption — this gang needed some dunking and warming.

I introduced my table — ‘here are some Jewish treats — scrumptious bagels, delicious donuts… like police food. Wet your tongues. Eat!’

Tim took a bagel. ‘Thank you, this is kind.’ I watched as he cut it into triangles. He used a knife and fork.

Well, I heaped plates as they poured drinks and toes began to tap. A warm buzz of chatter about the origin of Judeao-Christian benediction practices emerged, and I squeezed my way back into the kitchen to finish those balls and start frying.

‘Judy,’ my friend Kathy peeked in from behind. ‘Is this a bad time?’

‘No, come in, watch me make some Jewish grub. And watch me!’ I said, pointing to my stomach which was now showing in its entirety due to having tied my t-shirt into my bra. I did a mock belly dance to the klezmer beat. ‘Woo!’

She giggled politely.

‘Judy, I was just wondering if I could ask you a few questions about the Jewish holidays?’

‘You don’t need to ask if you can ask — just ask!’ I said. ‘Judaism is all about questioning, you know.’

‘Well, I was just wondering,’ she seemed uncomfortable. ‘I was just wondering — is ch-a-ch, is this day a high holiday?’

‘A high holiday?’ I repeated, flipping latkes with a wooden salad server. ‘Well, only if you want to get high!’

I was about to explain our holiday hierarchy, when there came a buzzing through my chest (the phone, with T-shirt, was also in my bra). Private caller.

‘It’s not a good time’, I said.

‘Judy,’ she said, the requisite anxiety in place. ‘Please, please don’t forget to watch out for any oil splashing  -‘

Ø    

The latkes looked done. I stuck a fork into one to make sure it was fried through and through, and couldn’t resist a tiny taste. I shoved half into my mouth and promptly scorched my tongue.

‘Remember’, I urged my guests, as I offered them round my gherkin-jar of a sitting room. ‘Take sour cream and applesauce. It won’t work with just one — you need both.’

I forced a latke on Tim first, immodestly. ‘I never made these before — but they smell good.’

He carefully placed one onto a paper plate, with the required toppings. ‘Thank you, Judy.’

I waited until he took a bite.

‘Yes, this is new. A whole new experience.’

Ø     An hour later, I felt the mood was warm, and it was time to light the candles. I set up three and the shamash. I explained that each night we add a candle — always tending to more, I joked — to silence. What had happened to the chatter? As I prepared to strike a match, an even quieter hush came across the packed room. No one moved, they frowned, bodies were solemn. ‘You can breathe, you know,’ I joked. ‘Jews allow it’, and everyone giggled in awkwardness. Then, they stopped breathing again.

So, sandwiched between the window and the outside world that was now in my tiny flat, I said the berachot. And then, to re-energize the mood, I began my own renditions of ‘ma-otzoor’ and other hits. My guests remained silent throughout (even during ‘oy chanukeh, oy chanukeh’), except for polite applause at the end of each tune. This was getting strangely serious — I hadn’t yet clocked how, in England religion was taken to be private, and earnest. I stopped the show.

‘More latkes!’ I offered. And then, raising my glass of Diet Coke, ‘Cheers!’

‘Cheers’ they responded, and scattered back into discussions of historical hymns.

After another round of frying, and when I felt the energy had re-swelled, I introduced my last trick: dreidls. They loved it. Before I knew it, I was passing out little plastic spinners left, right and center. I got out the gelt too — ‘It’s not just money’, I announced, ‘It’s chocolate money. Edible money! Eat!’

Weren’t Jewish holidays just great? I thought. I patted myself on my sweaty back: Chanukah was looking to be a total success. Hot.

And wet.

Indeed, after several rounds of latke frying, and endless donations of energy, I was warm. My back was sweaty. And my legs were sore. Exhausted, I stepped back, trying to find a patch of flat to sit down on, and, ensconced in my living room, I took in the scene. Heaps of bodies, plates of food, drink, chocolate, money, gambling. Oniony oil ran down my cheeks and I wondered what I had possibly been thinking? Why had I felt compelled to force-feed so much Jewieness, heaps of maternal adipose, onto this innocent crowd?

Looking at my clusters of guests, I remembered: the reason Jews originally played dreidle was to hide that they were studying Talmud; they gambled to cover up that they were Jewish — which was then a real risk, punishable by death. But introducing this camouflage to others, was I covering up too? By inviting the art historians in — by purposefully making myself an outsider to my own party — wasn’t I hiding as well (under a blanket of excess)? A classic host, I was showing and telling some superficial versions, but not really participating. I was educating, attempting some form of outreach — but why? Did the art historians really care to know? And, was I even telling them the real story of the Maccabees? Was it just easier for me not to deal with my own conflicting feelings about Judaism, and instead, to push its positive traits on others?

Ø    

But at the same time, I really did want to educate, to make connections, to rid prejudices and unknowns. And looking back, I see how lucky I was then, not to worry that everything I did would be taken in an anti-semitic way. Was it a gambler’s fallacy to think one could do both? Stick to yourself and spread it out? Stay with your own and be a stranger among others? Each way had its flaws, each had its benefits. There is, for sure, a difference in putting the chanukia in the street, and putting the street into chanuka. As long as I knew what I was doing and why …

A dreidle landed on my lap. Gimmel. Gib.

‘Sorry.’

‘Judy’, someone asked. ‘Can you teach us to do the — the dance — they do at weddings?’.

Someone turned up the klezmer.

‘Oh, the hora?’ I said. Why not? And, as if on cue, the dance beat revved up on my phone - private caller with more to say.

Ø     ‘I know, it’s a bad time,’ she began.

‘No don’t worry,’ I began to say, almost empathizing with her constant anxiety, almost understanding the experienced risks of just being. Almost.

‘Judy, I just wanted to make sure you didn’t use all the oil. Those quantities really could be used to make double the number of latkes that you wanted.’

‘Thanks.’ She could have mentioned this before, especially since I had used even more oil than she had recommended, just in case. All this oil was no miracle, just a residue of Jewish excess, passed on between the generations.

Then I saw the real miracle — a large group of high-English Christian art historians doing the hora in my tiny Whitechapel living room. This was probably a miracle of liquor more than of oil, but nonetheless, it seemed like respectful enjoyment was being had. There was even a touch of comfort about the situation, despite the discomforts I had just become aware of. Perhaps I had concocted a real cultural mix — the English dry and the soaking wet, the cool and the hot… And so I found myself joining the formation, one hand holding Tim’s, the other holding mom to my ears, and I started dancing around in the age-old circles, not sure if I was leading or following …

Of course, that was six Chanukahs ago. After being here for a few years, I began to understand a bit more where and why those British Jews are hiding. Perhaps they’re not the only ones. Perhaps both British and North American Jews are hiding, each their own kind of Hellenists: one integrates into the public face, and one tries to make the public face Jewish. British Jews assimilate by changing their names. American Jews assimilate by changing everyone else’s names. Which is better? Is it better to stay an outsider, in the shade, out of the lime-light and thus danger but never really engaged, or to try to take hold of the light itself?

And me — 2007? Well…

This year, I’ll be spending Chanuka in China and Korea … there’s a J-comm in Shanghai, in Seoul too, you know. I look forward to new views, different lighting, and the million digital pictures that I’ll show my friends in Whitechapel, when I get back home.

Judy Batalion is a writer, lecturer, curator and performer based in London. She recently co-curated and co-authored Home and Garden, a series of exhibitions and books about paintings of British living rooms since 1700 for the Geffrye Museum of Domestic Interiors. She is currently writer-in-residence at the Women’s Art Library as well as associate lecturer in Criticism, Communication and Curation at Central Saint Martins. Judy is compiling a collection of writing about comedy audiences to be published in 2008 and her first one-woman show, Totally Chana Senesh, will preview at the Edinburgh Fringe and Toronto Hysteria festivals later this year.

  
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