Learning Balance (From My Racist Grandma)

By Ellie, SNS Summer Intern

Bayit VeGan is a religious Jewish neighborhood in southwest Jerusalem. To me, it is a collection of images: Jerusalem stone which is the colour of honey and condensed milk, stray cats, long skirts, the taste of Bamba, and my grandmother.

My grandmother, whom I call Grandma Barbara, is known to her neighbors and friends as “Chana”, the Hebrew version of Hannah. She speaks with an affected British accent, which often curls into American or Israeli. If you mention this, she will thank you for noticing. She is not proud of being raised British.

In fact, she has done all she can to shed her past identity. She was raised in northwest London by non-religious Jewish parents, and married early to an equally secular suburban British clothes manufacturer. After birthing my mum and filing for a divorce several years later, she promptly moved to Israel and swan dove into the passionate throes of ultra-orthodoxy, where she has comfortably remained ever since.

I often wondered where this total rejection of her secular past came from - my mother pins it down to a generally obsessive personality. Had she not utterly immersed herself in religion, she would have immersed herself in knitting, or money laundering, or some other worthy pastime. However, this zeal is not atypical of religious Zionists as a whole; My grandmother, like many others, believes that she belongs in Israel because Jews belong in Israel, because the Torah tells her that we always have, and devotes herself accordingly.

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It is perhaps to this, rather than to her religion, that I owe my disconnect with her and her Torah scholar husband (and roughly fifty step-grandchildren). Having been brought up in Hong Kong with holidays in Tel Aviv, my secular daily life is worlds away from the Israel which she inhabits.

More personally disturbing are her views on Palestinians, who don’t seem to factor into her ideal of a biblical Jewish homeland at all. Her views are one-sided, and largely uninformed. This political disconnect is saddening. While it’s easy to say that family comes above any politics, for several years it was difficult to visit her in Israel, particularly during the virulently anti-Israel phase that I underwent in my early teenage years.

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This anti-Israel stage was not without merit. Having learnt much of what I knew about Israel-Palestine from flagrantly biased relatives and been educated in a right-leaning Jewish school, it was important to question my core beliefs at such a formative time. However, in retrospect, I was viewing the Arab-Israeli Conflict (under the guise of intersectionality) as a simplistic tale of victim and oppressor. Looking back, it’s ironic. That I chose to ignore all of the conflict’s nuances in favour of an easy answer made me more like my grandmother than I would like to admit.

Nowadays, I can’t claim sides, nor claim I know enough to propose a perfect solution. But I visit my grandmother twice a year in Bayit VeGan, remember as many of her new grandchildren’s names as I can, and don’t argue as much as I used to. I know now that she won’t alter her views for me, but that doesn’t upset me anymore - even if it’s frustrating, it’s ultimately valuable to hear her perspective. I’ll try to elaborate; In 2011, I lived in a bubble with no access to Palestinian perspectives, and so this singular exposure to my grandmother’s ideals would have been harmful. In 2014, I had access to Palestinian perspectives, but entirely rejected those of my grandmother (thus gaining access to an equally one-sided narrative). And so, in the grand tradition of egotistical “I used to be foolish but now am very very smart” tales, I now recognise the value of not ignoring or isolating a narrative because I find it frustrating or wrong. Thanks, Grandma.