Jewish is my mother tongue
By Gillian Polack:
I love telling the reading public (or rather, my reading public, when it chooses to listen) “I’m not the Jewish person you think I am.”
I don’t belong to mainstream Judaism, even though I do. My family came to Melbourne from the second half of the nineteenth century and was all here around the end of World War I. This is important to my Jewish identity. It means I come from a bookish family, a leftish family, a musical family, a Melbourne family, and I can’t help myself: I use my fiction to express my Jewish identity.
I always do this, even when it’s not visible to others. One of my main characters in Illuminations (my first novel) is undertaking tikkun olam without even knowing what tikkun olam is, for I wanted to write a quest adventure and redeeming the world seemed the perfect thing to quest for.
My second novel I call Cellophane. It’s really Life through Cellophane when printed and is Ms Cellophane in ebook, and it’s set in Canberra, for there aren’t enough novels about female Canberran public servants who are made redundant. There are no Jewish characters. It should not be Jewish. It doesn’t look Jewish. (How many of us look Jewish? Really?)
Nevertheless, the whole of Cellophane was set off by me questioning what it means to be invisible, because unmarried Jewish women beyond a certain age can get that way. And because I mostly only look Jewish when people have discovered that I am, in fact, Jewish. Though (as people tell me surprisingly often) I have a Jewish accent. In case you’re wondering what a Jewish accent is, it sounds very much like someone who was brought up in Hawthorn but lives in Canberra.
Invisibility is terribly important, and it plagues me in so many ways. I wrote about it because it plagues me and it plagues so many other people, but it started plaguing me because of the concern people have had around me (ever since I was a tiny person, at Glenferrie Primary) about my Jewish looks and my Jewish accent and how well I spoke English for someone who only spoke Jewish as a child. Without all this behind me, I probably would have written about turning cellophane in an entirely different way. My Jewishness informs everything, but so do the reactions of others to it.
I like being Jewish. I don’t like being invisible or the alternative. I call the alternative ‘being a giraffe’ where people point and comment on my exoticism. I come from the least exotic branch of Judaism in Australia. I come from the committee-and-scones branch. I come from the port-and-pudding branch. I know G&S, not Yiddish folksongs. When I’m very, very happy, I will sing the whole of Trial by Jury. I’m neither a giraffe nor invisible, and so both ideas informed Cellophane, passionately.
Sometimes I play with alternate Jewish history in my fiction. I have a published short story that uses Jewish magic and my family background. I also have a novel using the same idea of Jewish women’s magic. This novel is still looking for a home.
Being a historian when I’m not a fiction writer, I’m gradually developing an entire alternate timeline for an entirely different set of fiction (in my copious spare time, for I have copious spare time in an alternate timeline, I’m certain) where Jews never left England and where a particular Jewish cultural reality is the actual reality. There’s just a bit of magic in this universe, and Jewish prayer is more effective than other prayer, but the Christians are uncomfortable admitting it. It’s like our own world, but not like our own at all. I just wrote my first short story set in this alternate England of the late Middle Ages, where the best bridge builders were Jewish women (ask me about my feminism, some day), and one day there will be more, or, more likely, a novel. I like writing novels more than I like writing short stories.
Having explained all this, I’m wondering what’s Jewish in my forthcoming novel. It’s a time travel story, where a bunch of scientists and their team go back to France in 1305 to attempt Big Things, and, for once, I didn’t sneak in a Jewish subtext. Not everything I write, therefore, is Jewish, except… it is. The Jewishness in Langue[dot]doc 1305 will be deeply personal for one character. I can’t tell you more without spoiling the story, I’m afraid, but it’s a different aspect of Jewishness to my other novels. More solitary. More dangerous. More troubling. It’s also more controversial.
There’s Jewishness in all my fiction. I never know how it will come out, but it always does.
Gillian Polack is a Canberra-based historian, writer and activist. Her novel Ms Cellophane can be found here.