By Jacob Engelberg, MA student in Sexual Dissidence
To be Jewish and queer in our society is to live one’s life within the context of at least two forms of marginalisation. In the UK where white, Christian heteronormativity is dominant, discrimination against those who differ from the norm is a fact of life many of us learn early on.
I grew up in an area of southeast London where, aside from my family, there were barely any other Jewish people.
The knowledge of my own Jewishness was something I learned initially from religious Jewish rituals in the home: weekly Friday night dinners, not eating certain foods, and our celebration of high holy days.
Upon entering school however, I slowly became aware that other children did not share this religious and cultural history – he white, Church of England hegemony that defined the school both characteristically and demographically had very little to do with me.
One of my earliest memories of feeling that difference acutely was when a classmate, upon finding out I was Jewish, remarked, ‘But I thought you were white.’
This moment epitomises almost too perfectly the anxious and liminal way that many Jews who pass as white experience race. I was implicitly told, as I would time and time again, that while some Jews may appear white, knowledge of one’s Jewishness had the potential to sever access to this privileged category.
When I reached the age of eight, my Jewishness was foregrounded once again when Judaism entered our Religious Studies curriculum. During this time people suddenly became interested in me, especially one of my teachers, who paraded me from class to class encouraging kids to ask the Jewish boy whatever they wanted to about the religion.
Initially, this was a bittersweet prospect as I quite enjoyed being given the attention, getting to leave class, and knowing the answers to others’ questions. It quickly became a daunting task however as I found that I was being treated as a spokesperson for a religion and culture that was so much bigger than me.
As the children gaped in awe at my description of one kooky ritual or another, I felt myself becoming uncomfortable with the way in which I had become expected to perform my difference.
Later, when other students decided to dress up by wearing kippot throughout the school day I felt incredibly uneasy, but with no adult figures telling them that it might be inappropriate and without terms like ‘cultural appropriation’ in my lexicon, there was nothing I could do about it. My culture was nothing more than a peculiar costume that they could put on and take off as they pleased and no one would tell them otherwise.
While my Jewishness served as a large signifier of difference, queerness was another aspect of my identity that had a sizeable impact on my everyday treatment. As a young child I remember being aware of my attraction towards more than one gender before ever coming into contact with the word bisexual.
While I didn’t come out until my late teens, I was an effeminate young boy. This led others to make their own assumptions about my sexuality, misreading me as gay (misrecognition as gay or straight is something many bisexuals become accustomed to throughout their lives). Because of this I endured homophobic bullying – mostly verbal, sometimes violent – for the most part of my primary school years.
I remember a time when, sick of being tormented by someone or other, I decided to confide in an adult, a Playground Supervisor whose big, bushy red hair I remember to this day. Whoever it was ‘keeps calling me gay’, I told her, in what must have been a big step for a child who took tremendous efforts in preventing adults from finding out he was being teased.
Her response was an astonishing, ‘Well are you?’, and in that moment, I felt the harsh realisation that maybe not all adults were there to protect me. My response was a panicked ‘No’, but I was now all too aware that my dissent from masculinity was sufficient proof of my queerness, that my desire to pass as straight was utterly hopeless, and that I could not always trust adults to look out for my wellbeing.
By the last term of primary school, my mum had decided to relocate our family to north London in order to be part of a wider Jewish community where I would start secondary school in September at a Jewish state school.
After having told some of my peers about this, a kid came up to me one break-time and told me that he heard I was going to a school for gay people. I corrected him that it was a Jewish school but in the days that followed, the rumour persisted and festered amongst the other children – the last blow in a prolonged series of ridicule.
In this primary school setting, my queerness and Jewishness made me hypervisible as they both served as variations on the norm of straight, white Christianity which dominated the school I attended – a microcosm of British society and its oppressive structures.
I find it interesting that in that final episode of bullying, it was almost as if my Jewishness and queerness had become synonymous terms for my tormentors. Neither were normal, both were grounds for ridicule, and together they complimented one another, fully ossifying my otherness.
However, the significance of my experiences at primary school far exceeds their context and my life. Queer Jews know fully well the increased burden of dealing not only with antisemitism but homophobia, biphobia and/or transphobia – aspects of which permeate so many parts of our society including the minority communities of which we are part.
Our stories should serve as reminders of the importance not only in the fight against oppressions but the necessity of understanding them as intersecting and interdependent structures.
Only with this in mind can we begin to dismantle the composite web of discrimination that still engenders inequality in our society.
- Jacob Engelberg is a Masters student in Sexual Dissidence at the University of Sussex. He tweets @JacobEngelberg