It’s hard enough being a teenager without having to contend with taming your Jewfro or rows with your parents, who won’t let you go out on a Friday night. But, as several young adult authors reveal to Alex Galbinski, the downsides to being a Jewish teenager were far outweighed by the good
The maxim states that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but it seems it also works for teenagers. Asked what she most liked about being Jewish as a teen, Ellie Phillips, author of Dads, Geeks and Blue Haired Freaks and its sequel, Scissors, Sisters and Manic Panics, says: “The food. Always the food. The pickled herring, the pickled cucumbers, matzah, roast chicken, chicken soup…”
Miriam Halahmy, author of a cycle of three young adult novels – Hidden, Illegal and Stuffed, which discuss topics such as immigration, drugs and human-rights laws through the eyes of teenagers – agrees. “Food definitely featured. My parents and grandparents were very good cooks and there was distinct Jewish food, which we did not experience outside our family lives: chicken soup, borsht, chopped liver, chopped herring and all home-made, of course,” she says. “This meant that each of the homes had distinct smells which, to this day, I associate with a Jewish home.”
Other positives included the camaraderie of being part of a small group. Jonny Zucker author of more than 50 books, including the Max Flash and the Venus Spring series, says: “I didn’t go to Jewish schools, so on one level it made me feel a bit special that I belonged to a group of people who had their own path as well as the paths everyone else was following – an identity with a culture rich in heritage and morality. I liked being able to mix with a whole bunch of other kids outside school as well.”
However, this dual heritage sometimes proved a double-edged sword, as Zucker, 48, adds: “On another level, it provided some discomfort because, although there wasn’t any racial violence in school, a few of the other pupils made anti-Semitic jokes and one of the teachers at the lower school was a classic anti-Semite who made quite a few comments to me that would probably put him in prison today for hate crime.”
Perhaps because of these experiences, Zucker’s book, Dan And The Mudman, explores the theme of a Jewish teenager whose parents move from London and up north and is bullied by some anti-Semites at school.
Phillips, whose character Sadie Nathanson is Jewish on her mother’s side, says she did not like being “different”. “No kid does. I sometimes felt like an outsider at school,” she explains. “Like I could get close but never really close enough to what was happening. And I didn’t like how I looked. I wanted straight blonde hair, blue eyes and a snub nose. I got curly black, brown and a Barbra Streisand schnozz.”
While it doesn’t sound like she had as much to contend with at school as Zucker did, she does recall: “I went to a church school where my religion/race was considered a bit of a novelty because everybody was white and Christian, and I was even asked to read in Hebrew in assembly so everyone could hear how Jesus spoke.”
At secondary school, Phillips, 46, was told she resembled Anne Frank and Maureen Lipman and, again, there wasn’t the same degree of cultural awareness as there is today. “I was made to stand up in front of the class so others could observe my profile. If Israel was ever in the news (which of course it was – often) I was always asked for my views on the situation. I was literally Menachem Begin’s official Surrey spokesperson for five years,” she jokes. “I wonder if he knew.”
Keren David, who has just published This Is Not A Love Story, which features two Jewish families and one youngster whose father is Jewish, also felt a bit isolated. “I was one of three Jewish girls in my year at school. It was just difficult because no one else was – all the things, such as Friday nights and keeping kosher were made more awkward because it felt it was just me that this was happening to, like my parents had invented all of this to plague me and isolate me. It did have that feeling of being in a cult!” she says, laughing.
Being Jewish made her feel “very strange and different and it kind of stood in the way of having a social life – although Welwyn Garden City [where she grew up and where her parents were pillars of the 100 family-strong community] wasn’t the most exciting place as a teenager”.
Life in a small town coupled with being at an all-girls’ school make David, 52, feel “doubly frustrated”. She recalls: “I hankered after being someone who lived in Edgware and knew other Jewish people. I think that was my idea of paradise – to escape to north London.”
However, being Jewish in her school allowed her to skip assembly, so she could “sit in the library and read books and newspapers – and given that my entire career has been based on these, that was quite important”.
David came into her own at Jewish camps. “I went to Study Group Youth camps, which was wildly exciting. It was a totally new world for me: ‘Wow, so many Jewish people!’ I’d only known about 10 Jews, most of whom were related to me and not of my own age,” she says.
She wishes she had been aware of other groups. “Now I meet people who were into Habonim and I think why didn’t I know about Habonim?” she laughs. “All the coolest people were there, including some who are my friends now, but I so should have been there.”
Zucker, too, remembers youth camps fondly. “My Jewish experiences came through being a member of Habonim and then Habonim Dror. It provided me with some lifelong friends and taught me the skills of leadership, community and motivation.”
From the age of 18, Halahmy attended weekends away organised by her synagogue, Maidenhead Reform. “I went to every single one. That was where my commitment to Judaism was finally sealed,” she says. “Hugo Gryn and Lionel Blue were the rabbis who came and talked to us for hours in such a wonderful way. Their influence on my spiritual and religious life continues to this day.”
Phillips, whose parents were atheists but considered themselves culturally Jewish, made her and her sister attend cheder in Sutton, an hour’s drive away from their Surrey home. Her older sister was batmitzvahed, but when her parents asked if Phillips if she’d like to stay three more years at cheder and have the ceremony, too, and “get a digital watch and fountain pen,” she responded: “’Thank you very much but can we now leave here and never come back?’
I said, without even missing a beat. Maybe I didn’t ‘fit’ at cheder either. My parents did try to bribe us to go to synagogue occasionally – we were promised a McDonald’s afterwards which was, y’know, different.”
As to whether anyone will admit to having sported a Jewfro, Phillips does. “I still have, and will always have, extremely curly hair,” she says. “At various points as a teenager, I tried to tame it into something more silky and ended up with a flat frizz. At the age of 18, I found hair mousse and embraced my curls. My life can actually be summed up as a series of hair products; mousse, gel, serum and, recently, hair creme.”