As young Jewish adults, do we live our lives according to formulas already set out for us, or are we creating our own equations?
I was out for dinner a few weeks ago with a group of my closest friends and as I looked around the table I noticed something.
There were 15 of us sitting there.
This is what I noticed:
- 12 of us grew up together in Manchester
- Of these 12, 9 grew up within a 5 minute drive of each other
- 11 of us were in the same school year
- 10 of us went on the same gap year to Israel with Habonim Dror
- 7 of us went to the University of Birmingham
- 6 of us are solicitors, 5 of us working for similar corporate law firms in the City
- 9 of us are engaged or married (all of us being under the age of 28)
- 15 of us live within a 15 minute drive of each other in the same area of North-West London
- 15 of us are Jewish
As I processed these statistics, I imagined taking these facts about our friendship group and sharing them with another group of friends sitting at a nearby table. Surely they would be baffled! How and why had our lives up until now followed such a similar path, making the same decisions along the way? And these similarities don’t apply just to our important life choices, they extend to our everyday actions as well: from the values that we hold to the clothes that we wear and the holidays that we book.
There is something I have been referring to for a while as ‘Jewish Algebra’. My official definition of this term is the formula of life as a Jew in the diaspora, (the Manchester, UK edition) and, whilst its patterns can vary (only slightly of course), this is the Main Formula:
(GCSEs + A-levels + Good University degree) x (Involvement in Jewish Activities from a young age) = stable career + a solid group of Jewish friends.
There are various other formulas, including the Geographical Formula:
Born in Manchester + Attend Leeds/Birmingham/Nottingham University = Renting or buying a flat in London, NW3 or NW6
And the Relationship Formula:
Girl/Boyfriend + 3-4 year relationship = Proposal/Proposal looming.
(I want to point out that I am aware that these equations are a massive generalisation and there are those who do go to Oxford/Cambridge University too).
But what of those whose lives fall outside of Jewish Algebra, by choice or otherwise? What about the one who dropped out of school before their A-levels? Or the one with the only non-Jewish partner out of all their friends? Or the one who is 35, single and only just about ready to settle down whilst their friends are on their second babies? Do these people find it more difficult to make and accept these choices because of the expectations and pressures surrounding them?
And what about the one preparing to hang up her heels to move to Israel- is she nervous to divert from the formula she so rigidly followed up until now?
The scenarios above are the result of normal choices young people in our generation are making and, more often than not, situations to be embraced and encouraged. In this day and age, emigrating is an acceptable and popular decision, however I hold my hands up and admit that the social pressures which result from belonging to a close-knit community emphasise the feeling of being different from those around me. It makes me wonder how many others have contemplated making changes in their lives to follow their dreams, but have hesitated to do so due to anxiety and fear of falling outside of these equations.
It is an established sociological pattern that like-minded people with similar interests and traditions stick together and exist in groups, and religious minorities provide some of the best evidence of this. It is a well-known fact that our Jewish history is based on insular communities existing in the diaspora, and that our ancestors past decisions to stick to the same paths as one another has enabled us to establish strong and successful communities.
As I look around the table at the familiar faces of the friends that have been such an important part of my life, it dawns on me that our grandparents’ similar life choices, our parents’ similar life choices, and now our similar life choices are the reason that we have been fortunate enough to maintain such strong and close friendships for all of these years. Nevertheless, whilst our Jewish identity, culture and education encourages us to question our beliefs and live according to our values, it is possible that the nature of our insular communities are stifling our opportunities as young adults. We are all responsible for the decisions we make, yet can we avoid the undeniable pressure of Jewish Algebra?