Thursday, March 28, 2013

Elves for beginners

I grew up reading a lot of world war 2 history. Specifically, I read a fair amount about the Holocaust. This is what happens if you're bookish in Belgium. People love to invade, so there's a lot of history. It's Belgium. So cute. So conveniently located. This early reading perhaps accounts for my tendency to think about The Jews in hushed, reverent tones, the way one might about a recently deceased relative or an endangered species.

Belgium is a lapsing catholic country, and I a humanist in it. One of the two places I can claim as a home town is quite full of muslims, so I grew up around lots of headscarf-wearing, Arabic (and Turkish) speaking girls my age, even if my school in the other home town was so obliviously white they thought the second generation Italians were exotic. I grew up around Turkish and Moroccans folks, Greeks, Poles, Italians, take your pick; but not jews. Never jews.

It wasn't until I was well into university that I met my first real live Jewish person, on a summer job. She was Georgian, loud, confident, fun and altogether something else. And she was from Antwerp, of course, where those people with the hats sell diamonds.

She didn't have a hat.

I moved to America. Lovely, America. America is full of jewish people, and whenever I find out a friend is jewish, I have to supress a little cry of "really? how exciting!" because that isn't polite. You see, I was dutifully taught abous muslim customs and festivals in school, and you couldn't miss the catholics. Jews now; ah. I got taught plenty about jews. Just not about...current ones. Mostly, it was death and suffering. Not so much live, contented jews. Jews buying pie. Jews making coffee. They were unexpected. As a consequence, I feel like a hobbit (we've established Belgians are hobbits, right*?) encountering elves for the first time, with a slight thrill. I mean, look at those elves, they're all tall and long-haired and they sing all the time, and I don't understand what the songs are about but they can run on snowdrifts, and how cool is that?

Right?

Remind me what Passover is again?

It's exotic. I can´t help it. Every time I schedule an event over a jewish holiday I have to be schooled, only to also forget the next one. I´m like a 19th century anthropologist - all inquisitiveness and misinformation; that's the voice in my head anyway. In conversation I try to be just a tad more sensitive. I still forget that there is no Christmas, even though I at one point lived with a (non-Christian) Turkish flatmate so overwhelmed by the Christian show of "look! trees! we cut some down for you!" that she left the country for a week (apparently that impulse is not unique)

Oh, and THEN I met some orthodox jews. You know, the whole no driving on Saturdays band. I don't stare. I really don't. I don't ask about the timers, the kitchens or the clothes or anything. See?

So if you meet me, and you're jewish, try to forgive me. You can let me know if I'm forgetting a holiday and I, in turn, will refrain from asking what you need it for. I promise I won't look at you funny, and I will do my best to ignore the random bursts of songs in Quenya.

*Belgians love elevenses, and biscuits with their coffee. Possibly whipped cream in the coffee, and some booze. After that, perhaps a beer and a cheese plate?)

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