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Jewish Algebra

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?

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Where it all began..

If I was to be given the chance to do an Oscars- style acceptance speech when landing in Israel to mark my official transition to Israeli citizen, there are a few key people I would be sure to thank. Parents, family, friends, the Israeli Immigration office, blah blah blah, but without a doubt, most of my thanks would be directed at Habonim Dror, the culturally Jewish and Zionist Youth Movement, informally known as ‘Habo’.

 

So, just in case they do introduce an aliyah speech-on-arrival requirement, here is the long version of my thank you speech and an insight into my decision to make aliyah:

 

There is no denying that the origins of my connection to Israel stem from my involvement with Habo, shaping and forming the person I am today and the choices that I have and will continue to make.

 

I am not going to start at the most obvious place of my Habo journey, the beginning, as then I would have to bore you with details of my intrigue when my friends returned from the ‘best two weeks of their lives’, with stories of late night ‘continuations’ (a notorious kissing game, particularly bad for self-esteem) and singing bizarre songs about how they had seen a bird with a yellow bill (and it had landed on their window sill). We were 12 years old, they had all just been on their first Habo Summer Camp, and I had no idea what they were talking (or singing) about.

 

In fact, I am actually going to start at the place where I sat in a circle with 26 others, after spending nine months living together in Israel as part of a gap-year programme with Habo (‘Shnat’), emotions running high as the reality of returning to England drew closer. During this year we lived on a Kibbutz, toured the country, went on a one week trip to Poland, volunteered in various roles and lived together in a big house in the North of Israel. The programme was based on teaching us about Jewish and Israeli history, Israeli Society with a focus on interpersonal relationships and living in a communal setting, including sharing money.  

 

It was now the final night of the programme and we all sat reflecting on our memories of the past year. Everyone took home something different from their experience in Israel, some taking nothing at all, but I know that this particular moment still stands out to me eight years on as a time of both clarity and happiness.  

I want to point out that I was never taken to Israel as a child. Due to the Second Intifada I didn’t go on Israel Tour as many English Jews do at the age of 16, and I had very little experience of Israel or Israeli culture in my life up until I went on Shnat. My year in Israel didn’t enable me to live out my personal Zionist dream, mainly because I never had one, and the programme at the time didn’t offer a true insight into what it would be like to live in Israel. To be honest, I had minimal contact with local Israelis, learnt a small amount of Hebrew and focused my attention mainly on other members of the group and our interaction with each other. I barely got to know Tel Aviv, spending only several weekends in the city, which to my memory was very different eight years ago to the amazing city it has developed into today. Despite this, the feeling of acceptance, belonging and connection to Israel (in the most sincere and least cheesy sense of these three words) that I was introduced to during Shnat sparked off an emotional association with the country that would turn out to be very influential.

 

The Shnat experience opened doors for me, not only to a country which I could make my own, but metaphorical doors in my mind allowing me to stop and consider what I want in my life, what was important to me and how I had the power to achieve it. I imagine that very few people have such an opportunity presented to them at the age of 18.

 

So I returned from my gap-year, enlightened and excited, ready to move onto the next stage of ‘the Formula’. Accordingly, I started my Psychology degree at Birmingham University, studied hard, got a boyfriend, drank copious amounts of vodka redbull and put up a different Facebook album for every night out (we were limited to only 60 pictures per album in those days!). Although the past year was now a distant memory, I continued to be involved in Habo as a leader and I continued to return to Israel year on year. I was never shy about my love for the country, but at the same time my current life forced the questions that I had been occupied with on Shnat into the corner of my mind. As far as I was aware, I was English and I was always going to be.

 

As time went on, I began to consider my career options, none of which considered or contemplated a future in Israel. I picked law. The reasons why I decided to pick a career as a corporate lawyer in the city are best kept for another time, but either way, in my final year of University I began to pursue a career as a lawyer.

 

But just as I was about to start law school, I got cold feet. But what about Habo? Have I experienced my last ever camp fire? My involvement had waivered but now I was being presented with an opportunity to run the organisation that had given so much to me for the past ten years, and not only this, I would get to do it with three of my closest friends. I wasn’t ready to let go. I postponed law school for a year and became a Movement Worker for Habo. One of the most challenging yet rewarding, frustrating yet fulfilling jobs I have ever, and probably will ever, do. It was during this time that Israel came back into the picture and it was during a seminar in Israel that I opened up the ‘aliyah box’ for the first time, seriously exploring what was inside. I began to realise that there were some parts of me that were not truly settled in England, and that were probably never going to be. Once again, Habo was giving me the platform to ask questions and enter into discussions that I had put to the side for so many years.

 

In between my two years at Law School I went on a two month travelling trip to Brazil. This valuable time away from my reality enabled me to reflect on my life at home and a possible future in Israel. I concluded that in order to make a decision, I would need to go to Israel for a prolonged period of time to test whether I actually wanted to live there, or whether I had made up an alternative reality that I was never going to pursue. The next summer this is exactly what I did. I spent six weeks in Tel Aviv, I rented a room in a flat, I stayed in an unglamorous area next to the Central Bus Station and I explored the city. And when I left, I promised myself I would return soon for good. I just had the small matter of completing a two year training contract in London first! So before the flip flops, had to come the heels.

 

There are many reasons as to why I have decided to move to Israel this year, but I know for certain that my past involvement in a Jewish Youth Movement is one of them. During my time in Habo, from an inquisitive child on summer camp, to a leader who came back year after year, and finally to my role as a Movement Worker, I was able to explore questions that are sometimes unanswered and most often not even asked.

The ultimate part of the Habo journey is to make socialist-aliyah, living in a socialist group or community and working to improve Israeli society. I am not making aliyah as part of Habo. I left the movement several years ago, and I am moving to Tel Aviv as an individual to fulfil my personal dream. However I am certain that my future in Israel will be founded upon the values and morals instilled in me by the movement, beginning a journey that has undoubtedly been fuelled and fostered by my time in Habonim Dror. And for that, I will be forever grateful.

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