A few years ago, I was interviewed by Madelyn Cohen Travis as part of her PhD study of Jews and Jewishness in British children’s literature. Why, she asked me, as a writer who is Jewish, did I not write about Jewish themes and characters?
My answer was that my first two books concerned themselves with a boy in witness protection, struggling with his sense of self when taking on a new identity. Making him Jewish would have added huge complications to the plot, while distancing him from the experience of ordinary readers. I wanted teenagers to feel that this could happen to them, so it was important that he was an ‘ordinary’ boy - whatever that is.
I was, however, quite happy to make him a Roman Catholic, and delighted in using Catholic concepts and imagery, although the underlying themes - running from danger, changing one's name, starting again, are really very Jewish.
There were other reasons why I didn’t create Jewish characters. First, I very much didn’t want to be pigeon-holed in any way as a Jewish or even ethnic writer, as I consider myself equally British and Jewish. Second, there’s a very British Jewish thing about keeping one’s head down, not being ‘too Jewish’ which I had learned from a very early age. Third, I was well aware of anti-Semitic tropes. My third book is about a girl who wins a lot of money. I wasn’t going to put anything Jewish into a book like that, because the only overt anti-Semitism I had experienced in Britain, up until a few weeks ago, was based on the myth that Jewish are rich and mean.
Thinking about it, though, I became aware that one day I wanted to write a book about British Jewish teenagers. Partly because, as Madelyn’s excellent research proved, there are almost no books being written today about British Jewish teens, and in the past many Jewish characters were offensive stereotypes. Even Beatrix Potter created a greedy starling called Ikey Shepster.
If Jews appear in more recent British children's books generally they are victims (mainly historical) or villains (mainly Israeli). Or they are only vaguely Jewish (there's a boy called Goldstein in the Harry Potter who has no personality, let alone a Jewish identity). Or sometimes they are Jewish but completely secular and keen to prove it, a bit like Ed Miliband, munching his bacon sandwich. Of course there are many secular Jews, and many tangentially sort-of Jews in Britain. But the Jewish kids I know, the ones who go to synagogue at least occasionally, who might go to Jewish schools or youth groups, who know how to play Jewish Geography, who have friends called Rafi or Zak or Ariella: I never see them in books.
I am passionate about diversity in YA literature. My books have characters who just happen to be Muslim, black and mixed race. I feel it is important to reflect the world I see around me, and to put the teenagers that I meet at schools into the books they read. Shazia, in my book Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery, is a Muslim girl inspired by some of the lovely girls I met at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in Islington, voracious readers with open minds and a lot to say for themselves. They deserve to see themselves in books, and it doesn't happen enough.
|Miranda West with a parcel for a friend|
One of the reasons that I am so passionate about this is that I almost never saw anyone like me in any book that I read when I was growing up. Antonia Forest’s Marlow family books were one shining exception, with a character Miranda West who was British and Jewish, who suffered from mild occasional anti-Semitism, and general ignorance about who she was and what she might believe, but mostly got on with life without her Jewishness getting in the way. Although Miranda was different from me in most ways, we had enough in common to make me feel less odd, different and invisible.
So, I have just finished writing a book, entitled This is Not a Love Story. It is a book about falling in and out of love, with the problems, passion and anguish that can bring. It is set in Amsterdam, but two of the teenagers are Jewish and British, and I based them on kids that I know and love.
My characters don't talk much about Israel and Palestine - hardly at all in fact. For Theo Israel is a central part of his identity, somewhere where he’s visited often on holiday and on youth group trips, somewhere where he has close family. For Kitty, it’s somewhere she hasn’t visited and doesn’t feel especially close to, partly because her mother thinks it has too much ‘negative energy.’ In some ways her distant relationship with Israel reflects her feeling of being an outsider in the Jewish community in London. .
They only talk about this in passing, because I didn’t want the book to be swamped with earnest discussions about Zionism and I didn’t want readers to judge Theo and Kitty on the basis of their ideas about Israel and Zionism. One of the disquieting things about the last few weeks has been the feeling that one is judged as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ Jew – by some people on how much you are prepared to condemn Israel, and by some other people on how much you are backing its government’s strategy. In private many of us have admitted feeling scared to say anything at all. I am scared to post this blog, I have to admit.
Writing the book, I was happy with the decisions I made, because in my experience most Jewish teenagers didn’t tend to sit around debating the Middle East. Until now. For the last few weeks the Jewish teenagers that I know best have been busily educating themselves about the past and present history of the Middle East. They are watching the news, reading newspapers, looking at YouTube. They are asking big questions. They are scared, curious and passionate. ‘Why,’ one asked me, ‘are people being anti-Semitic on my Instagram feed, when I have nothing to do with Israel? Why don't they care about the children dying in Syria as much as they do about Gaza?' Another told me proudly that when a few Jewish boys he knew said unacceptable things about Arabs, ‘I put them right,’ but when another Jewish friend condemned Israel utterly ‘I put him right as well.’
My book is finished (pending editorial notes) and I am hoping that the world will become normal again, that our blundering leaders will find a way towards peace, and more than peace, find a way to happy lives, free from fear and oppression, not just for Israel and Palestine, but for all the many places in the world where people are dying and under threat of death. I hope that some of the frightening anti-Semitism I have witnessed recently signifies nothing more than ignorance. I hope that yet again my characters will become typical in not feeling very connected to world affairs, in their assumption that dangerous anti-Semitism mostly lives in the past.
My book is only a very tiny part of any bigger picture. But my hope is that by writing about Jewish kids I can fight prejudice and stereotypes in my own small way.