In Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, a novel in verse based on fragments by Stesichorus about the myth of Geryon, shame is being a monster with red wings in a world of people without wings. I think we all carry some trace of shame within us, but some of us have bigger wings than others. Wings that are harder to hide when we press our backs to the walls.
I grew up in a very non-Jewish area, and I have been self-conscious about my Jewish identity for as long as I can remember. It doesn’t help that my mother is Jewish but my father is not, meaning that I feel too Jewish among non-Jews, and not Jewish enough when I am with other Jews. Much of the time, I seem to be standing on the sidelines, watching everyone else and trying to work out how to fit in.
I was told as a small child that I was Jewish, because my mother was. Like my having brown hair or poor hand-eye coordination, this was just a fact about myself, whether I liked it or not. I was never really sure what it meant, though; the only way it was generally expressed was through my family celebrating Hanukkah alongside Christmas, and through my refusal on principle to sing Christian hymns at my Church of England primary school. This was my act of defiance, my self-demarcation of difference; I would stand up in assembly with everyone else and then press my lips shut as they sang about Jesus. I’m still not sure why – it’s not like I have ever really been religious – but something about it seemed important to me. Given that as a child I was painfully shy, my refusal to assimilate into my Christian environment felt like a daring act of rebellion.
As I grew older, I wrestled increasingly with the tension between being Jewish and yet not really feeling Jewish. I would make jokes about my Jewishness, but always follow it up with some kind of denial, a sort of get-out clause; I was only ‘half-Jewish’, I wasn’t religious, I wasn’t a ‘proper Jew’. I think this was in large part a knee-jerk reaction to my discomfort with suddenly outing myself as a curiosity, a sort of domesticated freak; other than my two siblings, I didn’t know another Jew in any of the schools I attended until I encountered one other Jewish student in sixth form.
This student was in the year above me, and I vividly remember that after he left school, he told me about joining his university’s Jewish Society (JSoc) and encouraged me to do the same. I was bemused by this suggestion, saying that it couldn’t be the place for someone like me; someone who barely qualified as a Jew, sitting on the uncomfortable rough edge between Jewish and non-Jewish identity. At the same time, however, I felt a sense of wistfulness as he described celebrating Jewish holidays within a community to which he unequivocally belonged; how nice it would be to feel unquestionably at home.
When I arrived at university, one of the first friends I made at my college was also Jewish. I still remember discovering this fact and treasuring it, thinking it was almost a miracle; what were the chances? (Given I’d almost never encountered a Jew outside my family up until that point, my assessment of the statistics was probably skewed.) He too tried to encourage me to come along to a Friday Night Dinner at the Oxford JSoc, and once more I laughed the suggestion off. Such community events were for the real Jews. I was an imposter, a fraud.
And yet I certainly felt Jewish enough when I was in a room full of non-Jews making tacky jokes about the Holocaust, or talking about how left-wing antisemitism was a fiction invented for malicious political ends. I always felt Jewish enough, painfully so, when exposed to antisemitism – and the depressing thing is that much of the time, it was the only way in which I fully experienced my Jewishness. My Jewish identity came to be almost entirely defined by the world’s hatred of it – of me.
Living as a Jewish person in a non-Jewish environment made me hyper-aware of my identity and sometimes uncomfortable with it, which ultimately bred a sort of shame. Over time, it becomes all too easy to internalise the non-Jewish world’s perception of us: privileged, greedy, neurotic, manipulative, predatory – there are too many stereotypes to list. We come to see ourselves, in our darkest moments, through the antisemites’ eyes: as freakish monsters who don’t – who can’t – belong. And so of course we develop the habit of negating our identity, of distancing ourselves from our Jewishness, as a mechanism to insist to ourselves – and to those around us – that we’re just like them. To assert our humanity.
I was trapped for a long time in a strange limbo, with my Jewishness always creating some kind of awkwardness, regardless of my company. Eventually – perhaps largely because it became too exhausting not to – I started to reclaim my identity on my own terms. Antisemitism in a way forced me to reckon with my Jewish identity whether I liked it or not, and I decided to rise to the challenge by living as a Jew loudly and proudly, and rejecting the attempts of anyone else to define what that means.
In all honesty, I’m still negotiating the contradictions and difficulties of this process; I’m routinely worried in Jewish spaces that I’ll somehow slip up and be exposed, though for – or as – what I’m not sure. Jewish holidays in particular tend to heighten my feelings of inadequacy, as I have to Google the correct traditions, which even then I’m unlikely to perform, and greetings, which I’m sure to mispronounce. But, to my relief, every Jewish person I’ve met at Oxford so far has been perfectly welcoming and respectful; funnily enough, no one has asked to see my credentials before accepting me into their community. It turns out that all along I was needlessly gatekeeping myself.
To return to Carson’s depiction of Geryon: one of the things which stuck most in my mind while reading Autobiography of Red is the beauty of Geryon’s wings; they are delicate, colourful, and sensitively responsive to emotional shifts. Maybe having wings is not the problem. Maybe our wings are not what make us monstrous, but what make us human. And maybe shame after all is not having wings, but hiding them because we are too afraid to fly.