Celeste Augé – How I Learnt to be Jewish

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The thing is, the reality of being a teen activist is very different to how I pictured it when I was eleven. It mostly involves going to various Amnesty meetings and writing letters and keeping a blog to help raise awareness of all the human rights abuses around the world or at home here in Ireland. Sometimes there’ll be a protest outside the GPO against something and that can be exciting, depending on who’s there and what it’s for. At the anti-globalisation protest the guards got heavy-handed and I managed to phone-snap some cop truncheoning an anarchist before my dad rang me and made me leave in case trouble found me. His words, not mine. But the rest of trying to save the world is pretty mundane. School and parents and the fact I’m only seventeen years old don’t help.
Sometimes I think if I had Batman’s resources and could buy a batsuit, or Ironman’s wealth and could build a rocket suit, maybe I would have made a difference by now. But a teenage Catholic Jew (and general misfit) living on the far western edge of Europe, stranded on a small island in the Atlantic Ocean – how could I save the world? What could I do? Sometimes I picture flying up through the classroom window, out over Phibsboro, flying arms first towards the grey-suit villains this world protects. I imagine being able to save the world, make it a safe place to live for everyone.

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Finally, at three minutes to nine, Nonie trudged in to the school foyer, her overfilled backpack forcing her to lean forward even more than usual. The zombie apocalypse that is Monday morning parted and flowed around both of us. I held out the flyer for the table quiz that Ireland For Gaza were running as a fundraiser-slash-protest.
‘Please please please say you’ll go.’
‘Need more sugar. In strong tea. Can’t cope. Ssshh. Be very quiet.’
What was the point of staying up all night studying for the Leaving Cert, then not being able to concentrate in school the next day? Especially when we had serious plans to make.
‘Okay, I’ll leave you alone for today. But just to warn you: I CAN’T WAIT FOR SATURDAY NIGHT!’ I tried not to shout directly in her face. ‘We have some seriously serious plans to make.’ Palestine was my personal activist mission. Complicated for me, culturally, but it really pissed my mother off. Bonus.
‘Mmmh.’ Nonie’s activist mission was torn between LGBT rights and kicking arse on the Leaving Cert. Gaza didn’t rate highly in her priorities list.
‘C’mon Nonie, you know this is important. It’s for my people.’ I thumped the side of my fist against my chest and she rolled her eyes at me. She wasn’t a massive fan of my Palestinian supporter schtick. But she wasn’t the one saddled with all the guilt over what was being done in the name of half of me — well, half of my cultural identity. The bell saved her: time for the zombie apocalypse to get a move on. History class first thing.
‘That’s okay, we can talk on Saturday. Meet you at the bus?’
‘W’ever.’
‘Excellent. We can do the usual incognito plan. Sort it out later. I CAN’T WAIT. I cannot wait.’
Nonie sort of shuffled off ahead of me. We were going to be late for class, but who cared? More important things to sort out.
The usual incognito meant:
1) Fake IDs. All pub events required this, obviously.
2) Just enough Urban Decay. Not so much we looked like painted ladies, not so little we risked looking our fresh-faced ages.
3) Going-out clothes. No leggings or Ugg-style boots allowed.
4) Getting John to cover for us. This was our usual ploy if his band were rehearsing on the night. Officially, we were going to watch them. Both sets of parents thought it was good to take a break from study, they thought John was a solid boy and that music was good for us somehow. Plus they knew no one could possibly hear a phone ring over that post- post-punk cacophony, so we’d be safe from phone-spying. As long as I got home by weekend lights-out, I’d be okay.
5) And finally, keeping schtum about any cultural-slash-religious-slash-sexual identities.
It’s not that we wanted to hide who we were. But we’d both been on the sharp end of the digs you can get when people you’ve just met decide to box you in based on one small fact of your existence that you didn’t even get to choose. So Nonie didn’t instantly have to be teen-dyke and I could avoid being that Irish Jew. Which, given the pro-Palestinian gang that would be rousing it up at the table quiz, seemed like an extra-good idea.
Obviously, I too am pro-Palestine, as in I support the cause. But I’m also part-Jewish (hence very pro-Jews) and people can assume that I have all sorts of political leanings when they find that out. It can get weird.
So the question lurking in the back of all this is: How did I get to be Jewish (in Ireland)?
But that’s not the right question. The real question is: How did I learn to be Jewish (in Ireland)?
It all gets a bit complicated. I live on an island in the Atlantic Ocean where until recently the gene pool was so limited scientists used to do research here when they needed to disregard genetic variables in their results. And as for the Kevin Bacon six degrees of separation game, everyone in Ireland isn’t just connected, but practically related. This means that anybody whose bloodline doesn’t go back to before the English took over is considered an outsider. It’s as if the country is one big intermarried village.
So the Jewish stuff is all on my mother’s side, right. My father is RC all the way. (For the uninitiated, that’s Roman Catholic.) Except for the rumour that his great-great-grandfather took the soup. But more about that another time.
My great-grandparents (on my mother’s side, keep up) were both from Poland, brought over as children. Apparently that made them outsiders even in The Liberties, hub of all things Jewish in Dublin. The story goes that most of the Jews that had settled in and around Lower Clanbrassil Street way back when were from the same village in Lithuania. They’d left during one of the Russian pogroms. Apparently a lot of them had been related to one another, or neighbours, back in the homeland. That’s what my mother always said, anyway. It sounded very Irish to me.
I never really knew my Jewish grandparents. I have vague memories of my grandmother (Nana Bubbe, Mum always called her) at the house she was born and reared in. Mostly her hands kneading challah on the kitchen table and the yeasty warm-skin smell of the bread baking on Friday afternoons. But I’m not sure if that’s a memory of a memory. It always feels like a movie scene to me.
Mum said Nana Bubbe was strong willed but meant well. Dad always said Nana was a crazed battle-axe. I think things got strained with my grandparents when Mum and Dad got married. Apparently nothing my parents did was right. Dad agreed to get married in the Dublin Progressive synagogue, they held the reception in the only hotel in Dublin that Nana Bubbe would darken the doorway of, they even recited the seven marriage blessings. Both Nana Bubbe and Zayda had been always been dead against Mum marrying outside the faith. Another classic family story: on their wedding day, as the assorted family members – the ones who hadn’t yet fallen out with my parents – milled around outside the synagogue, Nana Bubbe joined the queue to congratulate the happy couple. When she got within spitting distance of Mum, she loudly congratulated her for managing to find herself a live-in Shabbos goy. A Shabbos goy is a non-Jew who does all the stuff that practising Jews are forbidden to do on the Sabbath. Mum always laughed when she’d tell the story but Dad would look pinched. These are the bits and pieces I’ve gleaned from eavesdropping and putting two and two together over the years. Both of my grandparents had died by the time I was seven, and Mum never talked about them much.
Unlike Superman or Spiderman, I’ve been lucky enough to keep both my parents. But that’s my origin story. Well, one part of it. That’s what made me a Jew.
How I learnt to be Jewish, now that’s another story.
Mum was never religious, let alone observant. Neither was Dad, for that matter. But they both regard themselves as culturally religious. They don’t believe the theology and they certainly don’t practice it, but they enjoy the parts they choose. And I think they wanted to pass that stuff on to me. The stories and the rituals, mostly.
So Mum will light Shabbat candles, or knead and prove and burn some bread on any Friday afternoon that she’s off work and feeling nostalgically Jewish. She’s definitely not the baker in the house.
And Dad will put up a small crib during advent, ritually placing the little figurines on all the wrong days. I know this because he spends half his time debating which figure comes next in the story, and then at some point giving up and lobbing a wise man in at random. He doesn’t even go to mass, except on Christmas Eve.
As for me, well, I’m obviously confused. I celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas. Mum and I light as many candles as we safely can (keeping in mind the time a menorah crashed down onto the crib and set its roof on fire). I’ve even gone along to the annual Christmas Eve mass with Dad to celebrate the occasion. During Lent, every year, I give up chocolate. Then I give up Brennan’s sliced pan for Passover. Properly mixed up.
For some reason, my parents decided to send me to a Jewish primary school when we were living down in The Liberties. Once we moved Northside though, it was local non-denominational. Dad won that round, I think. So I’ve got a smidgeon of Hebrew, I know my way (vaguely) around the Five Books of Moses and I can feel guilty better than anyone I know, except Mum. But coming from a non-observant, fifty percent Catholic home, into a small school in a tight-knit area, I’d always felt different. It didn’t bother me though. Mum didn’t care about keeping up with Steins and Dad was naturally rebellious so I slipped from house to the occasional cheder without a drop of self-consciousness.
When we moved Northside, though, that changed. Mum would bring me back down to the Liberties to get some wurst or bagels or schmaltz for roast spuds and all of a sudden I’d feel like a sore thumb. I had no Jewishness going on. All the stuff that seemed to come natural to Mum – the yente chitchat, the obsession with telling everybody else what they should do and how and the obsession with Dead Sea beauty products – had totally bypassed me. So I did what I always do: I researched, I listened, I found my teachers.
Basically, I learnt how to be Jewish from Woodie Allen movies and box sets of Seinfeld.
I can quote most of Annie Hall at wildly inappropriate moments. Favourite line: ‘I’m guilty all the time, and I never did anything, you know.’ My mother’s favourite quote is: ‘I can’t enjoy everything unless everybody is. If one guy is starving someplace, that puts a crimp in my evening.’ I’ve even heard her use Deconstructing Harry to slag off my dad. ‘Between the Pope and air conditioning, I’d choose air conditioning.’ One time, he was so totally wound up he threw a line from Manhattan at her, in full crap American accent: ‘You know a lot of geniuses y’know. You should meet some stupid people once in a while, y’know, you could learn something.’ Weird, to hear my parents trash talk each other using the films of Woodie Allen.
Seinfeld came into my world via the Dublin Flea Market. John dragged me and Nonie there one Sunday and I picked up my first piece of Jerryness on DVD for the grand total of one euro. Once I heard the sarcasm – and the gang saying ‘these pretzels are making me thirsty’ – that was it. I scoured Dublin and the internet, soaking up every episode of Seinfeld that I could find.
What have I learnt about being Jewish from these two Americans?
1) How to laugh at myself, at the eejit things I do, as well as the eejit things my mother does.
2) How to cook Jewish food Kramer-style.
3) That yada yada yada will fill in any gap in knowledge. Seriously, any gap.
Oh Moses, smell the roses. I figure at least I’ll always be able to order from a New York deli, if I ever make it over there.
In a weird way, Seinfeld and Woodie Allen helped me and Mum, well, bond I guess. So we’d both blurt ‘these pretzels are making me thirsty’ when we had to wait too long for nosh at a cafe, or in the middle of those awkward silences that we got stuck in more and more.

*     *     *

My biggest problem right now was my next class: honours maths. Time to wake up and take some notes. I wasn’t almost failing honours maths, I was bombing it. With only a couple of months to go until my Leaving Cert. The teacher had marked me up the two percent so I’d pass the mock exam. Don’t tell my mum. If she knew I had actually failed, she’d kill me. And if I didn’t get reams of formulae memorised for the Leaving both my parents would kill me. I was on teenage death row here, or as my Dad would claim, purgatory. Then Mum would probably feel the need to pipe up with Gehenna just to balance out the faiths.
How could I tell her that I wouldn’t need honours maths to get out there and help save the world? How could I tell her that this weekend, I would be chipping away at the injustices I saw, in whatever way I could, even if it was only by going table quiz Instead of studying for my Leaving Certificate exams? How could I tell her that failing, for me, would mean sitting quietly behind a stack of books while Israelis — a nation defined by its religion, partly my religion, even if I’m not observant in any shape or form — were forcing Palestinian farmers off their land? How could I convince my mother that my life only made sense as long as I was keeping an eye out for others? That the other option was total depression at all the shite going on in the world that I had no say in? That if one guy is starving someplace, that puts a crimp in my evening?

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Celeste Auge
Celeste Augé is the author of "Skip Diving" (Salmon Poetry, 2014), "The Essential Guide to Flight" (Salmon Poetry, 2009) and the collection of short stories "Fireproof and Other Stories" (Doire Press, 2012). World Literature Today has said that "Celeste Augé’s poems are commendable for their care, deep thought, and intellectual ambition”. Her writing has been widely published in literary journals and she has given readings at festivals, libraries and pubs, as well as chairing literary events. Celeste’s poetry has been shortlisted for a Hennessy Award and in 2011, she won the Cúirt New Writing Prize for Fiction. She lives in Connemara, in the West of Ireland.