Experience Is To Be Lived

Reflections on life as a [relatively privileged] minority status collector


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The Fast of the Apostate

TRIGGER WARNING: SUICIDE, DEPRESSION

Depression tried to kill me. I survived! Let’s eat!

Speaking from the depths of a severe depressive episode, this is likely to be a shorter blog post than most of mine. I feel driven, though, to pull together a few thoughts that have been floating around in my head over the last few days.

The Temple in Jerusalem was the centre of Jewish life at the time, and its destruction scattered Jews across the world.

The Temple in Jerusalem was the centre of Jewish life at the time, and its destruction scattered Jews across the world.

Tuesday 15th July was a notable day for several reasons. It was the day that I had a second interview for a job that I really wanted (and didn’t get). It was also the Fast of Tammuz, a day in the Jewish calendar which marks the beginning of the saddest three-week period in the year. On that day, Jews across the world commemorate the breach of the walls of Jerusalem by the Romans in 69CE, an event which ultimately led up to the destruction of the Second Temple and the beginning of the Exile which is ongoing. This year, many Jews chose to dedicate their fast to a hope for peace in Israel-Palestine, fasting alongside their Muslim cousins during Ramadan.

Tuesday 5th August was another notable day in the Jewish calendar. It was Tisha b’Av, one of the most significant fast days in Judaism, marking (among many other coincidental disasters in Jewish history) the destruction of the Second Temple. In addition to fasting, it is traditionally marked by adopting full mourning rituals, including not bathing, wearing jewellery, wearing new or clean clothes, sitting on chairs, using lotions or make up, engaging in sexual activity, or greeting one another. All in all, it’s a pretty intense day dedicated to bringing the person into as deep a state of sadness as is possible when they are so far detached in time and often geography from the events commemorated.

I have now decided to disclose the fact that I did not mark either day in any way at all.

Although I kept the fact very quiet from people around me, I have now decided to disclose the fact that I did not mark either day in any way at all, although for very different reasons.

My past blog posts both here and on other websites have hinted that I am losing my commitment to Judaism, or, as it is called in Jewish circles, ‘going off the derech [path]’. I feel as though it no longer means to me what it used to, and without a compulsion of the concept of divine reward and punishment, I have no real reason to continue to practice what I would formerly have done. It’s very much a work in progress in the moment, establishing what means something to me and what doesn’t, so I’m taking each day as it comes.

I thought about fasting on July 17th. Had I fasted, I would have dedicated my fast to the #hungryforpeace movement in hope that I was adding my voice to a call for rationality and brotherhood. As late as the night before the fast itself, I was still trying to work out whether or not I would fast, because the religious significance of the fast day just didn’t mean anything to me. Sure, there was the collective mourning, the sense of history, the solidarity with my people and my past, but I know that whenever I fasted in the past, it’s just been for show. I don’t really get into it, I don’t feel sad; I just feel hungry, and I like the feeling of hunger, so that doesn’t bother me. Believe me, I have used every method I can think of to connect with the day, but it just never really felt like a sad day. In the end, I decided that there was not enough significance for me to fast on the day of an important job interview and risk performing badly at the interview, so I did not fast. (As happens, I aced that interview! Sadly, someone else aced it more, and I didn’t get the job. But that’s by-the-by.)

On Wednesday 30th July, I crashed headlong into the most severe depressive episodes I’ve ever experienced.

In the three-week period between the two fasts, a number of factors came together in a perfect storm of horror, and on Wednesday 30th July, I crashed headlong into the most severe depressive episode I’ve ever experienced. Twice in the first few days, I came very close to ending my life, and owe my survival to a couple of very amazing people who know who they are. Although the urges have reduced a little, they’re still simmering under the surface and bubbling up every now and then. I have passed my days in a blur of tears, self-loathing, unsatisfying sleep and an ongoing battle to keep up with my daily life as if everything was fine, even though things that used to mean so much to me are now as bland and unappealing as staring at a brick wall. That last, incidentally, is an activity that I’ve done quite a lot in the last week or so.

This is my black dog. I haven't given him a name, because I hope he won't hang around too long.

This is my black dog. I haven’t given him a name, because I hope he won’t hang around too long.

I’m not sure if  I would say that the feelings I’ve had since that Wednesday have been comparable to the experience of mourning, with which I am intimately acquainted. In the immediate aftermath of my mum’s death, I cried a lot, and I felt like life could never get better again, but I still felt like I had a purpose to life. Life may have been utterly dreadful, but I still had some kind of reason to keep going, even if it was just to get back to my degree. At the moment, in the pits of depression, that purpose feels like it has just disappeared like smoke up a chimney (to use an old cliché). The black dog of depression is doing everything it can to make my life not worth living.

When Tisha b’Av rolled around, I didn’t even stop to think for a moment about the possibility of fasting. I listened to happy music. I watched TV. I had a shower. I wore my normal jewellery, and happened to pull a t-shirt out of the drawer that I’d never worn before. The fast day was completely meaningless to me, in terms of both its religious significance and the communal solidarity it draws. Ironically, though, I felt more sad and downbeat this Tisha b’Av gone than I have ever done before. This time, I didn’t need to fast on Tisha b’Av to feel depressed: my body was doing a very good job of that for me. I had been living my own personal Tisha b’Av for almost a week by then. Far from trying to bring myself down further, I was doing everything I could to find the tiniest bits of happiness in life, just like for so many years I have tried to find the tiny bits of sadness within a generally happy life.

I didn’t need to fast on Tisha b’Av to feel depressed. I had been living my own personal Tisha b’Av for almost a week.

There’s a little self-deprecating maxim that Jews throw around quite a lot to sum up their festivals: ‘They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.’ There’s also the lesser used ‘They tried to kill us, they managed it, let’s not eat’, which is what sums up the fasts of Tammuz and Tisha b’Av. Having been through what I have recently been experiencing, though, I want to alter the ditty in celebration of the smaller successes. Depression hasn’t killed me yet, and every day that it doesn’t, I’m going to eat to celebrate that. Fast day or no.

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What equals marriage?

Yesterday, I went to the wedding of a good friend, and I’m so happy for her and her new husband. What’s just as exciting is that, this weekend just gone, there have been same-sex couples able to enter the same form of partnership across England and Wales.

 This weekend there became one definition of marriage: love, irrespective of gender. 

 Far from introducing a second definition of marriage into British law, this weekend there became one definition of marriage: love, irrespective of gender. And that is beyond awesome. The law in England and Wales (and soon Scotland) now recognises same-sex marriage and same-sex partners’ right to marry the person they love. Not all religions or religious denominations are offering the same opportunities, but I personally don’t have too much of an issue with that. As long as a religion isn’t being a douchebag to same-sex couples and is recognising their right to love whomsoever they choose, I’m happy to say to a religious community, ‘OK, a religious marriage of two people of the same sex isn’t something your principles can accommodate for, so don’t do it, but play nice, please’.

In recent days and weeks, I’ve been reflecting on my own attitude to same-sex marriage. I don’t mean my attitude to whether it should be possible, because on that front, I’m 100% for it. No, I’m talking about for myself. As a bisexual, I now know that whoever I ultimately fall in love with, whatever their gender or sex, I can marry them. In the law, at least. As a practicing Jew, though, I have to put myself within the Modern Orthodox label when I want to be ‘establishment,’ because it’s the closest denomination to my beliefs and practices; Modern Orthodoxy says that I cannot have a marriage with a woman under religious auspices, and I’m not sure that I would want to change that.

 Modern Orthodoxy says that I cannot have a marriage with a woman under religious auspices, and I’m not sure that I would want to change that.

 Now, this raises some interesting and slightly unsettling questions for me. Do I recognise a secular marriage as a valid marriage, or would I only be properly married if it was under a chuppah (marriage canopy)? Is the answer to the previous question applicable in equal measure whether my partner is male or female, or would I recognise a secular marriage to a woman but only a religious marriage to a man? Do I want to marry a woman if I can’t marry her ‘fully’ in the eyes of my religious denomination? Do I even want to ultimately end up with a woman if I can’t have the religious, Jewish, heteronormative lifestyle of chuppah and babies? As someone attracted to both men and women, is that even something I can actively choose (by only dating men, for example), or do I just have to see what happens and cross that bridge if the road leads to it?

Could this really respresent a marriage for me personally if both rings were worn by women?

Could this really respresent a marriage for me personally if both rings were worn by women?

I think that ultimately I want an Orthodox wedding, because I’ve grown up with a strong sense that a registry office ceremony is only a part of a wedding for me, and unless I involve the traditional aspects of a Jewish wedding, performed in an Orthodox manner, it won’t feel like I’m as married as I could be. For myself, as for many, marriage is more than the legal status of the two partners; it’s about commitment and love, and my Judaism is inextricable from that, so I will need both aspects. And that means a heterosexual marriage, which means trying to have only heterosexual relationships in the hope of meeting the man I want to marry.

You’re probably seeing the massive problem there. However firm my resolve, I can’t guarantee that I won’t meet and fall in love with a woman, because human emotions just don’t work that way. So, should that happen, will I get married to her through civil law and live with her as wife and wife? Will I marry her under a different denomination of Judaism which allows same-sex weddings so that I can have a Jewish wedding and feel like my marriage is authentic? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s hard to know what I would do in that hypothetical situation, and honestly I hope that I never have to make the decision. I guess I’m back to the best course of action being heteronormativity.

I’ve just finished watching a series called Queer as Folk, written and aired about 15 years ago on Channel 4, which (as the name might suggest) is about the gay community contemporary to the time of its airing. It was actually written by Russell T. Davies, a gay man who spent a lot of time in the Canal Street area of Manchester, where the TV series is itself based. My feelings about the series are pretty mixed. On the one hand, I applaud Channel 4’s willingness to explore issues like homophobia and acceptance through a lense of experiences common to everyone regardless of their sexuality: the characters deal with things like the responsibility of parenthood, the death of a friend, financial troubles and unrequited love, and their responses are for the most part realistic. On the other hand, homosexuality is always laid on heavily as a motif, and the specifics of the scenarios are almost always such that you could not replace the characters with heterosexual ones without changing the details dramatically, generally because of a heavily homophobic attitude from another character. As such, it really manages to portray the basic inequality surrounding sexuality, and perhaps highlights the fact that prejudice has been engrained so deeply within society that it has the potential to taint every aspect of life for non-heterosexuals.

 Prejudice has been engrained so deeply within society that it has the potential to taint every aspect of life for non-heterosexuals.

 There was a lot in the 10 episodes which I found deeply upsetting, and I sincerely hope that society has progressed in the 15 years since it was written. Obviously, one major development we’ve now had is the opening up of the institution of marriage to same-sex couples, and there was an exchange between two characters which stood out particularly to me in relation to that…

Stuart and Vince have been friends for 16 years, since the time that they were both exploring their sexuality in secondary school, but they are very different in personality. Stuart is the self-assured, confident, man’s man, always seeking the next one-night-stand and caring nothing for social niceties or the feelings of others, while Vince is the quiet, sensitive, ‘sidekick’ type who is a little bit geeky and always gets overlooked for the more in-your-face Stuart. After Vince has been treated particularly badly by Stuart (and has forgiven him without being asked), the atmosphere between them is a little tense, and a conversation in which Vince expresses disinterest in participating in a threesome ends with Stuart saying to dismissively that Vince ‘just wants a wife’. At a later point, in the heat of an argument completely unrelated to relationships or sex, Stuart shouts at Vince, ‘you’re just a straight man who fucks men’.

The Pride flag, an international symbol of the LGBT+ community and its quest for equality.

The Pride flag, an international symbol of the LGBT+ community and its quest for equality.

Now, I had to spend a while reflecting on exactly what all of this signified, and what it said on a deeper level about societal and stereotypical perceptions within both heterosexual and homosexual communities. To me, the second comment seems to use ‘straight man’ as an insult in just the same way that ‘gay’ is used by many homophobes as an insult, in this case perhaps to mean ‘conformist’ or ‘boring.’ By adding in the ‘who fucks men’, Stuart is basically saying to Vince that the latter tries too hard to fit in with the community he wants to be a part of, but is inherently out of place because he has a radically different worldview. In reality, this difference is almost certainly much more due to the two characters being so radically different themselves than to Vince not fitting in, but that’s not present in the sentiment that Stuart expresses. (To be honest, thought, I actually feel a little uncomfortable that the series stereotypes the gay community as constantly going out on the pull. There are people with that pattern of activity in the gay community, for sure, just as there are in the straight community, but all three of the main characters in Queer as Folk are portrayed that way, and I find that unhelpful.)

The ‘just wants a wife’ comment is particularly interesting, because I think that it gives a strong insight into what marriage inequality can do to the community which is denied the institution of marriage. To Stuart, the serial one-night-stander, wanting to settle down with a single partner is something completely incomprehensible, but rather than framing his insult in that manner, he speaks of Vince as someone who wants to be able to have a marriage – which, in a setting of marriage inequality, requires the partner to be female. If this script were to be written today, it would probably lack the same strength, because heterosexuality is no longer the only way to be settled and married. Using the same phrasing would carry a very different meaning, and I can’t but wonder whether it would be phrased instead much more along the lines of ‘just wants to be the boring married man’ (or something more snappy!). Either way, I feel this shows that discontent about not having equal marriage rights has permeated into more than just the soapbox realm.

 Perpetuating marriage inequality has damaged society in a way which has affected almost everyone’s worldviews, whatever their sexuality, and in a way which is going to take a long time to repair.

 There have been a lot of arguments put forward against same-sex marriage, but I think that perpetuating marriage inequality has damaged society in a way which has affected almost everyone’s worldviews, whatever their sexuality, and in a way which is going to take a long time to repair. The fact that Stuart was able to use not being able to marry as a an excuse to call his friend’s sexuality into question, and the fact that even now I’m not sure if I would personally consider marrying a woman to be as valid a marriage as marrying a man, suggests to me that we have a long way to go yet before equality is more than just on paper. What is quite exciting, though, is that England and Wales (and soon Scotland) will now have a generation of children growing up who have never known a society in which same-sex marriage was ever prohibited. Maybe the future isn’t so bad.


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Everyone’s a little bit feminist.

Well, maybe not. But it would be nice if it were true, no? What the hell is a feminist anyway, and why is it a dirty word for some and a proud label for others? What does it mean to ‘give feminism a bad name’?

So, I’m a little late to the IWD party. But when am I ever not late for things? I’ve had this idea in my head for a few days now, and it only just occurred to that posting it yesterday would have been timely, but I missed midnight by just a bit.

It never really occurred to me that gender would ever feature in someone’s minds when they were thinking about intelligence or ability.

I’ve also come fairly late to the feminist camp. As a young girl, I had a pretty entitled attitude to life (by which I mean I was a somewhat petulant and precocious child), so I’m sure there were occasions on which I protested the ‘rights’ afforded to me, but I was never that bothered about the status of my gender in comparison with men. I was comfortable in the fact that I generally came out at or near the top in my class at school, ahead of most of the guys, and it never really occurred to me that gender would ever feature in someone’s minds when they were thinking about intelligence or ability.

In my religious life as an observant Jew, it never bothered me all that much that I was upstairs in the gallery of the synagogue while the men did their thing downstairs. I actually remember my mother z’l – no cowed woman herself – saying at one point, ‘I’m quite happy letting them do the religion stuff, I can’t be bothered!’, and I was always inclined to agree with her. The same way that I knew that if I had been around in the time of the suffrage movement, I would have been one of those women who said, ‘I’m not that bothered about the vote. I’ll just carry on making dinner, if that’s OK with you.’

Until relatively recently, I recall telling people that I was no feminist. ‘Feminist’ meant those slightly barmy woman who hate men, show off their armpit hair, and rant for hours about how society has done them wrong. Sure, I didn’t think that it was right for women to be given fewer opportunities than men based on their gender, but it’s not like that really happens all that much these days, anyway, right? Wrong, Past-Me, very wrong. You were so wrong.

Yes we can!

Feminist. Feminism. Let’s go back to basics. According to one definition, ‘feminism’ is ‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.’ According to another, it is ‘the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities’ or ‘the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.’ Let’s ignore for the moment the fact that two of these three seem to have assumed the synonymy of ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ and just focus on the basic ideas in them.  Quite simply, then, it would seem that a feminist is one who agrees with the somehow radical idea that men and women should be given the same opportunities in life, to be used (or not) as they wish, without the fact of their gender changing what society permits them to do. So, am I a feminist? Yes, and I probably always have been. Yes, I personally happen to love the activities traditionally assigned to women, and will happily cook, clean, iron, sew and so on once I’m (please G-d one day) married with a family – as long as my husband is willing to share some of those tasks with me. As a feminist, I believe that can be my personal choice, just as I could choose to be a high-powered career woman if I wished to (and may still choose to).

A feminist is one who agrees with the somehow radical idea that men and women should be given the same opportunities in life, to be used (or not) as they wish.

In recent years, there has been a big stir in the Orthodox Jewish world regarding the role and position of women in Modern Orthodoxy. It doesn’t seem unfair to say that traditional Orthodoxy has had pretty strongly defined gender roles, with men taking the prominent role in the synagogue and public worship and the woman’s domain being the home and the family. I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of law vs. tradition here, nor exactly why I’m in favour of many of the growing trends for the inclusion of women in prayer, practice and legal decisions; instead, I’d like to focus on people’s reactions to it all, particularly in reference to the relatively new partnership minyan movement.

For those unfamiliar with certain aspects of Judiasm, I’ll offer a brief explanation, and try to make it as cross-denominational as possible. Judaism is an incredibly community-focussed religion, and various aspects of the liturgy require an assembled community or minyan (ten adult Jewish males for Orthodoxy, ten adult Jews for progressive movements like Reform and Liberal Judaism) in order for them to be recited. There are also parts of the liturgy which are more obligatory than others, and thus there is an argument for them holding a slightly different status to other sections. Similarly, the traditional interpretation (within Orthodoxy) is that men have more of an obligation to perform/recite the liturgy than women do, and thus have precedence when it comes to leading services. The partnership movement, a new sub-group growing out of Orthodoxy, then, maintains a certain distinction between men and woman whilst arguing by identifying areas of reduced obligation that more of the service can actually be led by woman than has traditionally been accepted.

Many prominent figures have thrown their opinions into the partnership minyan debate – although I’ve heard more of what’s happening in the UK than worldwide. We’ve heard from supporters like Rabbi Daniel Sperber, Dina Brawer, Lindsay Simmonds, and Dr. Miri Freud-Kandel, and there’s been a plethora of responses to the movement from those less in favour, notably Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Rabbi Alan Kimche, and Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet. There’s also been much keyboard-time given to the matter on Facebook, particularly in the relatively new ‘MOO – Modern/Open Orthodox’ group set up by David Chait in the hope that it would provide a space for issues like this to be debated and developed further. The justification for partnership minyanim in Jewish law aside, what I’ve found really fascinating in all of the debating back and forth has been what it has revealed about people’s attitudes to feminism. And, in that, I include my own.

If things have been one way for centuries and then a grassroots movement comes along to shake it up a little, noses are going to be put out of joint.

When there is something at stake as fundamental as the traditional interpretations of Jewish law (halacha), it’s not all that surprising to see certain red lines being drawn and people taking other people’s views a little too personally. If things have been one way for centuries and then a grassroots movement comes along to shake it up a little, noses are going to be put out of joint. There have been both men and women arguing against partnership minyanim using a variety of halachic and sociological arguments ranging from the reason- and logic-based to the appeals to emotion and tradition, and the same can be said of those in support of the movement. I myself have been guilty of all of these forms of argumentation at times.

Where the embryonic idea of this blog post was born, though, was in my thoughts about and reactions to seeing women arguing against partnership minyanim: many, many women oppose the concept, having accepted and embraced their more traditional role in Judaism, and have said as much. Some have even done so whilst calling themselves feminists. My gut reaction to this has been a mixture of pity for their ‘oppressed mindsets’ and annoyance that they would be held up and used by their male counterparts as examples of why Orthodoxy doesn’t need such ideas after all. After a while, I became so frustrated by seeing such views being aired, particularly on the Facebook group mentioned above, that I seemed to be doing nothing but demonstrating that not all women shared the same views, rather than giving real counter-arguments. Eventually, I gave up entirely, concluding in disgust that the women concerned weren’t ‘real’ feminists; there seemed to be no point in hanging around, because I was clearly sharing the space with a patriarchal voice which couldn’t be silenced. But more on this later.

JOFA has been gaining momentum worldwide, and was brought to the UK a year ago by Dina Brawer.

My own view of partnership minyanim has evolved over time. I remember the first one I went to, about four years ago, making me feel distinctly uncomfortable. I was much more conservative (with a little ‘c’) in those days! As my feminism grew in general, though, so did my Jewish feminism; by the time JOFA (the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) held its first UK conference last June, I jumped at the suggestion (made by a male friend, as it happens) of going along. I even decided to go along to the partnership minyan held that morning, and I remember being moved by the fact that, as well as the 100+ women in attendance, dozens of men came along to ensure that there was a halachic minyan. They could have gone to any minyan that morning, but they chose to support the one which gave women a real role in the proceedings. Since that time, I have attended almost every partnership minyan held in London, and been given my first aliyah (call up to the Torah) at a different grassroots minyan. Quite an about-face!

I find it very comforting to know that we will only be pushing halacha and tradition so far and no further, because it seems somehow to justify what has been permitted.

I recently had a bit of a flash realisation, though, at a Q&A session with Rabbi Sperber about partnership minyanim. When asked (by a man!) whether such minyanim actually go far enough to include women, Rabbi Sperber responded that we are bound by halacha: we can go so far and no further, however much we may want to do so. And I was very surprised by the feeling of relief that that answer gave me. I feel very comfortable with the concept of partnership minyanim, and don’t feel that they are ‘just a slippery slope to Reform Judaism’, but I find it very comforting to know that we will only be pushing halacha and tradition so far and no further, because it seems somehow to justify what has been permitted: we know our limits, so clearly we must be operating within halacha. Stopping to think about this feeling of relief, it surprised me somewhat. Was I there and then demonstrating a mentality of patriarchal oppression? Was I only happy to be given equality if it was conditional? What kind of feminist was I, if I found reassurance from a not-so-transparent glass ceiling?

This reaction and realisation didn’t make me change my opinion of partnership minyanim. I remain committed to taking up a role in Judaism within the confines of halacha. What it has affected, though, is my understanding of feminism and self-definition. What it made me wake up and realise is that, for all that I pat myself on the back for being proactive about ensuring that women don’t suffer persecution, I forget that there are almost as many interpretations of feminism as there are feminists. Without having to stop to think, I can think of scores of people in my own circles and beyond who would consider my views to be far too traditionalist and would think that I haven’t gone far enough in the feminist pursuit. I may in turn think that they are wrong, but the disagreement doesn’t need to cast aspersions over either of our ‘feminist credentials’.

Not all feminists will share the same views as me, and that’s OK. We’re all ultimately heading in the same direction, so we really need to stop with the infighting.

Following that through to its logical progression, though, I’ve had to come to recognise that not all feminists will share the same views as me, and that’s OK. Feminist issues can cover a range of things from women in the workplace to women in religion to women in education, and different women will feel different levels of passion about such topics. If a woman considers herself to be a feminist because she is infuriated by the inequality she sees in education for women, but doesn’t feel a need to participate in religious worship, it doesn’t mean I have a right to decide that she’s not a ‘real’ feminist. Entering the feminist world late as I did, I never got the chance to talk to my mother about her views on the subject, but I very much doubt that her views on getting involved in services would have made her forswear calling herself a feminist, nor would I say that she wasn’t one. As frustrating as it can be to hear people not agreeing with one’s point of view (!) and seemingly even contradicting those opinions, we’re all ultimately heading in the same direction, so we really need to stop with the infighting. My feminism is different to that of people who go to fully egalitarian minyanim, and different again to women who disagree with women leading services in an Orthodox context, but we all have the right to self-define as feminists – people who recognise that men and women are equal.


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There are no words…

12 Years a Slave has so far taken $50m at the box office, and is nominated for 9 Oscars.

12 Years a Slave has so far taken $50m at the box office, and is nominated for 9 Oscars.

…so herein I try to articulate my speechlessness.

A few days ago, I went to the cinema to see a 2hr15 film, and was quite unsure about whether my attention-span (severely diminished by depression) would be able to deal with the whole of it, but I really wanted to see the film, so I took the risk. That film was 12 Years a Slave, and I didn’t notice the hours pass.

It’s taken me quite a while to get to the point at which I have collected my thoughts enough to be able to pull together anything coherent. My initial reaction when the credits rolled was to sit there immobile, just blinking rapidly, and it took a while for my sentence construction to improve beyond ‘that was… I just… I mean… Wow.’ Even attempting to write this blog post is taking all the concentration I can muster, because I’m just lost for words to express what the film made me feel.

I’m just lost for words to express what the film made me feel.

My starting point, I guess, is the initial reaction of the person I went to see the film with. To paraphrase, it was something along the following lines: ‘The film told me that black people were enslaved by white people, and white people treated them horrifically. But I thought I already knew that, so if that’s it, what’s new?’ To be sure, that does seem to be the basic gist of the film, and several more public reactions and reviews have this idea at their outset. Take Orville Lloyd Douglas’ opinion piece in The Guardian, for example. In his eyes, whatever your race, the film is ‘unlikely to teach you anything you don’t already know’; instead, it seems to be intended to ‘engender white guilt’ (which it certainly did with me!) with no other further purpose.

What Douglas would prefer to see is a film which examines conflict experienced by people of colour without putting the spotlight on their race – which recognises that a black person has the same struggles as a white person, be it with sexuality, bereavement or anything else, and which looks at those candidly without the fact that they are black even entering the narrative’s consciousness. There is much to be said for this attitude, and I’ve heard something very similar said about LGBT+ films like Blue is the Warmest Colour (also an amazing film, but too long); sometimes, in a director’s effort to represent a liberation issue to a general release audience, they seem to feel the need to fixate on the differences between that group and wider society, rather than portraying them as just the same as anyone else, and that unwittingly reinforces the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality. When was the last time you saw a ‘Happily Ever After’ film in which the protagonists were two men or two women?

Until the world at large comes to recognise that life has been pretty sucky for minorities, we will need more and more films which shock the privileged public out of its comfortable bubble.

On the flip side – and perhaps I’m playing devil’s advocate here – life in general has been pretty sucky for black people, and for the LGBT+ community, and for any number of other minorities you can name, and perhaps until the world at large comes to recognise that, we will need more and more films which shock the privileged public out of its comfortable bubble, even at the cost of playing to these stereotyping tendencies. I strongly applaud the move by the National School Boards Association in America to include this story in their curricula, using both the film and the memoirs upon which it was based as pedagogical tools to approach black history and institutional discrimination. This utility is certainly no reason not to have the other types of film as well, the ones which deal with black people struggling with their sexuality or which have a gay couple as the main characters, romcom-style, but I would never dismiss the power and importance of a film like 12 Years as Douglas seems to.

I do wonder, though, whether all of what I’ve said thus far is simply me speaking from a position of white privilege. Other than a small amount of racial prejudice I’ve been on the receiving end of as a Jew – never more than name-calling or misguided jibes – I have no lived experience of being a person of colour in a majority white society, and so the emotions evoked by a film like 12 Years are naturally going to be a mixture of shock, pity, revulsion and guilt. Empathy comes much less naturally, and it is difficult to generate it inorganically, whereas if I were myself black, I might have more of an inherent understanding. Frankly, though, even the majority of people of colour watching the film today (thankfully) have no personal experience of that level of cruelty. How, then, can we watch such a film and get anything more than shock, pity, revulsion and guilt without an easy frame of reference?

How can we watch such a film and get anything more than shock, pity, revulsion and guilt without an easy frame of reference?

Well, I’ll tell you what was running through my head for much of the film. Before I do so, though, I’ll preface it with the acknowledgement that, however much I ponder the idea, I still can’t work out whether my thoughts are entirey justifiable, or whether they are offensive and/or repulsive to the people involved. I’d be interested to hear what t’Interwebs thinks about it.

Basically, the only film I’ve ever seen before which can give me a frame of reference to compare 12 Years with is Schindler’s List, and I’m far from the only person to draw similar comparisons. The graphic depiction of violence and cruelty, the blasé dehumanisation of one group by another, the moral dilemmas thrown up by members of the persecuted group taking positions of power over their peers, the primacy of survival being put over all other ethical concerns, the occasional ‘more merciful’ member of the persecuting group – I found the parallels to be enormous and incredibly striking, and they gave me as a Jew a way to connect more closely with what the director was attempting to portray. That said, though, I’ve always found it very difficult to connect with Schindler’s List and with anything connected to the Shoah in general; just under a year ago, I was standing inside an intact gas chamber in Auschwitz-Birkenau, looking at the claw marks covering the walls, and I still couldn’t process it. I am one of a privileged group of Jews who can say that they have no direct family connection to the mass extermination of 1939-1945 Europe, and I think that makes it much more difficult for me personally to comprehend the enormity of it all. Nonetheless, having seen Schindler’s List allowed me to be able to look at the slaves in this film and think ‘we were treated like that too, and I know a bit more of what that could be like’. In that sense, a comparison can only be positive.

I think. Or maybe not. Superficially, the representation is in many ways similar, but how much of that is down to film directors knowing what sells? It can’t be ignored that Schindler’s List is about a form of persecution which was an attempt at mass extermination; Hilter’s ideal world was one in which ‘the Jewish problem’ no longer existed, and all forms of cruelty and exploitation had as their ultimate end vision the deaths of their victims. 12 Years, however, presents persecution wherein the persecuted become commodities to be bought, sold, beaten, manipulated, played with, and used in whatever manner the owner wishes; black slaves might die as a result, but that generally speaking wouldn’t be the explicit aim – after all, a slave is a valuable piece of property, and who beyond the most extreme sadist purchases something just to get the pleasure of destroying it? I make no presumption here to cast any opinion on whether one form of persecution is more terrible than the other, because that would be like having an opinion one whether it’s preferable to be mauled by a lion or a tiger. Both sound pretty horrible. All I seek to do is highlight a difference between the nature of persecution in black and Jewish history, and having done so, to demonstrate why I feel a little uncomfortable with my mind drawing parallels between the two while I watched 12 Years the other night.

Its core message is the visual representation of the way in which the dehumanisation of any group of people leads to unspeakable acts of persecution and violence.

All that said, though, I think on balance I would be happy to accept the comparison as valid. Ultimately, I think there is more to this film than ‘blacks treated badly by whites’; the way I see it is that its core message is the visual representation of the way in which the dehumanisation of any group of people leads to unspeakable acts of persecution and violence. Whenever a slave owner speaks in any way of the justification of the social order, it is in terms of the slaves being their ‘property’ rather than being human beings in their own right. When an abolitionist throws that worldview into question, the veiled threat he receives in return comes from a position of absolute certainty that the slaves could not possibly be equally human. This is where there is an indisputable parallel with Schindler’s List: every Nazi character speaks of Jews in precisely the same way, particularly in the unforgettable scene in which Amon Goeth beats his maid Helen Hirsch because he believes she is to blame when he realises that he is giving serious thought to the possibility of being attracted to her, a ‘sub-human’.

If, then, as I’ve come to believe, the point of 12 Years a Slave is to highlight the terrible consequences of dehumanisation, I don’t see too much issue with comparing it to Schindler’s List on the condition that the comparison is to be recognised as limited. But in saying that, I bear in mind also that I am neither a person of colour nor a direct relation of anyone murdered by Hitler, so I don’t know how valid my opinion can really be. Which is why I’d like to hear yours too, whether you are either of those things or neither.


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A Series of Fortunate Events

A few days ago, someone I admire very much posted an article about her experiences as a student with hearing loss. When I started to explore the website it appeared on, it came as a little bit of a surprise to me to realise that of the six categories of minority or liberation group covered by the website, I could self-identify into five. I’d already noticed that my diversity monitoring forms are usually slightly more ‘interesting’ than most people’s, but this was something pretty stark staring me in the face!

Liberate Yourself homepage, dedicated to the lived experiences of liberation students.

That evening, I was having a conversation with another friend I have huge admiration for, and I was speaking to her about this apparent ‘collection’ of minority identities I seem to have. Having reflected a little more on it, I’d come to the conclusion that I have at least six such identities (or even seven in situations where being under 25 can be a disadvantage), but when she went on to guess them, she missed two and picked up on one or two more of which I hadn’t really thought.

Still ruminating on this, the following morning I headed off to a learning day for Charityworks, the charity management graduate scheme I am on. The afternoon, it turned out, was a workshop on equality and diversity in the workplace, given by Jordana Ramalho, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at St Mungo’s (a charity well-known for its commitment to diversity). Timely! Not only did those two-and-a-half hours really open my eyes to issues I’d never fully contemplated before, but they also gave me another personal awakening. Divided at one point into six groups, we were given a number of different minority/liberation group to reflect upon, discussing the forms of discrimination such people could experience in the workplace and how, as managers, we could tackle such situations. When I heard the six categories, sure enough – I have some extent of lived experience in each.

All of this got me thinking and reflecting on how I might be able to put my experiences to use in breaking some of the silence surrounding certain forms of discrimination in wider society, opening channels of dialogue regarding topics that people might regard as taboo. I ‘ummm’ed and ‘ahhh’ed a little over creating this blog, wondering if some of what I have to say on certain topics might be too personal or unsuitable for broadcasting publicly on this wonderful Internetland, but I concluded that the more people speak about such things, the less taboo they will seem.

You will eventually find on this blog, then, very personal reflections on a range of topics, covering what it is to be a young, bisexual, practising Jewish woman with an invisible physical disability and clinical depression, who is a child survivor of sexual abuse and who lost her mother before the age of 21, but also thoughts on the many ways in which I experience privilege. The hope is to be able to relate all of this to how minority status is approached in wider society. Please note that there could be a possibility of triggers throughout what I may write, but I tend to write in a pretty lighthearted style, so I’ll want to avoid the heavy triggering material as much as possible anyway!

Happy reading! 😛