On the fifteenth day of October the Festival of Judaism began. Its slogan — draped on banners across the entrance and printed on the front of glossy Souvenir Brochures — was ‘the centre of Jewish life is the family home’. In celebration of this theme, the central exhibition of the festival was a Jewish Family Home and excitingly (and this was where bringing in the new young expo team, full of flashy headline-grabbing ideas had really paid off) for the entire duration of the festival, a real authentic Jewish family would be living in the space.
It was quite a coup, one that had attracted the attention not just of the Jewish press, or the British press, but even the worldwide media. Shlomo Luei, Director of the Festival, appeared blinking on various international news feeds. ‘It seemed the natural progression,’ he said. ‘For years, we’ve had demonstrations at the Festival of various aspects of traditional Jewish life that people no longer do at home: koshering chickens, baking challa, taking clothing apart to separate wool and linen and so on. This year we wanted to present a much fuller picture of that ancient way of life; we were very lucky that the Blattsteins agreed to take part.’
The Blattstein family: father Moshe, mother Leah, son Joshua, 12 and daughter Judith, 16 had been housed in a large enclosure in the centre of the exhibition. Soundproofed from the noise of the expo hall, and surrounded by electronically-controlled one-way glass, they could choose whether or not they looked at the people looking at them. Mostly, they chose not to. In the enclosure they went about their lives calmly and quietly. Mrs Blattstein cooked and cleaned, remembering always to keep meat separate from milk and to say the prayer before taking a lump of uncooked challa dough and burning it in the fire. Mr Blattstein studied his holy texts and taught Joshua to do the same; it would be the boy’s barmitzvah soon. Judith studied too, but only the texts permitted for women. It was all very fascinating.
The exhibit drew record numbers. For the first time, the Festival of Judaism had to issue timed tickets to prevent undue crowding. Shlomo Luei received a special commendation. The young expo team were nominated for a prestigious award. In their soundproofed glass box, the Blattsteins chatted and ate and sang and lit the Sabbath candles. Outside, the crowd moved mostly in silence, hands — and sometimes faces — pressed to the glass, like fish observing the world outside their tank, a world which was so different that anything more than a brief visit would prove deadly.
Ellie Markowitz had booked her tickets early, and with particular excitement. She’d always loved the Festival of Judaism, ever since her parents had taken her as a small child. Then, it had seemed to her the very height of tradition, the essence of what it meant to be a Jew. To read the preparatory materials, to study the exhibits, to attend the lectures: these were Judaism. She’d been astonished when her grandmother had said that, actually, the Festival of Judaism was a fairly modern invention, barely 50 years old.
‘But what did they do before that?’
‘Oh, before that…’ her grandmother rolled her eyes to the ceiling with the effort of recollection, ‘well, it had been dying for a long time you know. People didn’t feel comfortable anymore in those synagogues. Everyone thought that Real Judaism was meant for someone else. Not the average person. It’s better now: everyone can enjoy the Festival.’
Later in life, Ellie had educated herself about the history of the Festival of Judaism. Her grandmother had been right, broadly. There had been a slow but inevitable decline, predictable for generations. Traditional Judaism was for a certain kind of person: married (but only once), straight, both partners born of Jewish parents, themselves parents of children. Each element was slowly chipped away. The divorce rate hit 50 per cent, and even those who remarried remembered how hard synagogue life had been when they split up, and stayed away. Those who’d never married understood that they weren’t welcome in the synagogue once they were over 35. Those who fell in love with someone who wasn’t Jewish found no place. Those who were gay came to understand that a 3,000-year-old religion was too stiff and inflexible ever to accommodate them. Those who were infertile found the emphasis on Jewish Continuity too painful to bear. Those women who, with every passing year found the ladies’ gallery and the kiddush rota harder to stomach, received no relief. And even the few remaining married, Jewish, heterosexual couples with children found the thing difficult: one had to be wealthy enough to buy a house within walking distance of a synagogue, one had to ensure that one’s children also married Jews or face ostracism, one had above all to be willing to tolerate the exclusion of one’s friends and family. The numbers fell, and fell, and fell. The great progress of human civilization and thought moved on, while Judaism sat in the dust at the side of the road and watched it pass by.
The Festival of Judaism had been initiated when, for the first time, the active membership of Britain’s synagogues dipped below 1,000 people. The Festival had been a great success: at last, an inclusive Judaism. One had only to buy one’s ticket, spend an hour or two at the festival, and take a brochure home. No one knew how many active members there were of the handful of synagogues still remaining. Most people were surprised that any were left at all.
In their enclosure at the centre of the exhibition hall, the Blattsteins were preparing for Sabbath. This was a popular time of the week and scalped tickets were changing hands for high prices. Ellie felt pleased to have booked early. With her friends Steve and Adam she wandered the concourse, eagerly following the Blattsteins around the areas of their temporary home. Here was Judy Blattstein, in the dining room, laying the table for the Sabbath. Here was Joshua Blattstein, in his bedroom, practising his bar mitzvah portion again.
‘Bet that’s not the only thing he’s practising furiously at his age,’ whispered Adam. ‘Shhhhh!’ said Ellie. ‘Why? He can’t hear us. And even if he could, what’d be the harm?’ ‘It’s just not …’ Ellie frowned, ‘they’re from a more innocent time, you know?’ Adam rolled his eyes and wrapped his arm around Steve’s waist. Steve kissed him gently on the crown of his head and said: ‘I do think there probably wasn’t a time that was totally innocent about sex? Or masturbation? Embarrassed isn’t the same as innocent.’ ‘I know,’ said Ellie, ‘it’s just that…’ ‘Shhhh!’ said Adam, ‘look, they’re going to light candles!’
This was one of the highlights of the week. Mrs Blattstein and Judith stood before the tray with its six silver candlesticks. They lit the candles, almost perfectly synchronised in movement, then made that curious beckoning gesture with their hands, stretching out towards the candles and then bringing their cupped hands to their faces, as if to scoop the light into their eyes. Eyes covered, they muttered the holy words and then, the tension visibly dropping from their shoulders, they embraced. ‘Gut Shabbes,’ said Judith to her mother. ‘Ahhhhh, see?’ said Ellie. ‘Wasn’t that lovely?’ Steve smiled. Adam shrugged: ‘Yeah, alright. What’s going to happen now?’ Ellie consulted the exhibition notes. ‘Now Mr Blattstein goes off to synagogue.’ ‘That’s the place where they men pray and the women watch, right?’ ‘Yup,’ she looked further down, ‘part of the order of service depended on whether you were descended from the Priestly caste. Adorable. And, not only could women not take part in the service, they weren’t allowed to become President of the synagogue board either.’ ‘What about gay men?’ said Steve. ‘Oh ummm … wait, I think that’s in another section.’ Ellie flipped through her guide, ‘oh yeah, here it is. Oh. Yeah. No, they weren’t so cool with it. Sorry.’ ‘What a surprise. Shall we get some food while Blattstein goes to pray?’
Twenty minutes later, after a warming bowl of Traditional Chicken Noodle Soup, they returned to witness the family meal. Mr Blattstein came home from synagogue. His wife welcomed him to the table. The family raised their voices in song: the traditional melodies to greet the Sabbath, to praise the woman for her hard work in creating the day. The expo hall fell completely silent as the Blattsteins sang the simple looping harmony.
‘Beautiful,’ whispered Ellie when they were finished. Adam nodded, thoughtfully. ‘Don’t you think they’re a bit like pandas?’ Steve said. ‘I mean, cute and cuddly, but it turned out to be a total waste of time spending billions of pounds trying to save a species that only ate bamboo and didn’t like having sex.’ They watched in silence for a minute or two, as Joshua told his father about the Talmud he’d studied that week while Mrs Rosenblatt scurried to rearrange the hotplate and make things ready in the kitchen, ‘Just like pandas,’ he said, ‘if they’d really had any kind of survival instinct they’d have moved with the times. They didn’t want to live.’
‘It’s not like the pandas at all,’ said Adam. ‘They weren’t cute and cuddly. Look at the literature. This way of life might look adorable, but that’s just because we know we don’t have to live it. They were vicious and bigoted and racist and misogynist and homophobic. They didn’t make people happy, they made people miserable. Including themselves. They weren’t pandas, they were smallpox. We should be holding a bloody party to celebrate that they’re gone.’
Steve shrugged. Ellie sighed. Adam was always outspoken like this, but she knew perfectly well that he and Steve had decided to have their son Tomas circumcised even while Adam continued to deny that he felt any link at all to his Jewish roots. ‘It’s just a tradition,’ he’d said, ‘like if I was part Navajo I might learn to raindance or something.’ She’d made a noncommittal noise and said nothing.
Steve and Adam left at 9.30pm; they’d promised the babysitter they wouldn’t be home too late. Ellie stayed, though. Her ticket was good until midnight, and she enjoyed the peace of the hall as the evening wore on and more and more people went home. Mrs Blattstein was the first to go to bed, changing into a nightgown in the modesty suite, before settling down to sleep in the bedroom whose see-through walls automatically pixellated after 9pm. Mr Blattstein followed soon after, while Joshua and Judith stayed up past 11 playing a complicated card game and reading. At last, Joshua too went to sleep and Judith went to her bedroom.
On the Sabbath, when the Blattsteins tried not to use electrical devices, the pixellation of the glass walls and the lighting worked automatically. Judith, a night owl, had set her lights to stay on a mild glow most of the night, so she could read in bed. Ellie was the last person left in this part of the expo hall. There wasn’t much to see, after all. Mr and Mrs Blattstein were asleep in a blacked-out room. Joshua was asleep too. Only Judith was still sitting up in bed, reading.
At 11.50pm the warning bell sounded in the hall, and yet Ellie still did not leave. She didn’t know what she was waiting for. She watched the quiet house. She wondered what it would be like to live somewhere like that. So narrow. A community full of identical families, who rejected anyone different. Ellie herself was 36 and single; a community of families like the Blattsteins would have no place for her. It would have no place for the marriage of Steve and Adam, no place for their son, no place for most of her friends. And yet … not everything that is lost is good, but it has still been lost and perhaps it is right to mourn for it. Perhaps one should occasionally mourn even for smallpox, still more for the panda.
At 11.55pm, Judith crept out of bed. Only Ellie was there to see her. Only Ellie, her hand resting on the glass of Judith’s bedroom wall, saw the girl tiptoe across the room to the row of dials controlling the one-way glass. Judith ran her fingertips across the dials and, decisively, flicked a switch. Ellie looked at her and became suddenly aware that Judith could see her too. Judith gasped, her eyes wide. Ellie, in her jeans and T-shirt, stared at Judith, in the long nightgown.
Judith’s hand went back towards the dials and switches. She held up a hand to Ellie’s on the glass. Palm to palm, fingertips to fingertips. Ellie smiled. Judith smiled. The girl flicked the switches and the glass walls turned black.
‘Time now please,’ called the attendant, ‘time to leave now.’
A week after the expo closed, it was announced that, very sadly for her family, Judith had decided to leave the community. She had met a man. A non-Jewish man. There was a flutter of interest: how had she met him? Then a flutter of embarrassment from the expo committee: he had in fact been one of the organisers of the exhibition. They had fallen in love. It was a very sweet story really. The Blattstein family refused to comment. It was understood that they were planning a move to one of the Traditional Reservations; perhaps in America or Israel.
‘That Judith,’ said Steve, ‘I knew there was a glint in her eye.’ ‘Joshua’ll be gone too as soon as he’s old enough,’ said Adam. ‘What kind of life is that for a teenager?’ Ellie shrugged. ‘What do you think they’ll do when there are just 1,000 of them left across the world?’ she said, ‘or 100? I mean, do you think they’ll ever think of relaxing some of those rules? Or welcoming more people in?’ ‘Nah,’ said Steve, ‘they’re locked in now. If they change their minds they’ll have to admit they were always wrong.’ ‘Until what? The last Jew?’ said Adam. ‘The last Jew dies and then they’re all gone? Like what happened to the Shakers and the pandas?’
‘Not really,’ said Ellie. ‘I mean, I’m a Jew, and you’re a Jew. Our mothers were Jewish. There must be millions of people all over the world who are Jewish by birth, even more who have a connection to it. Steve, you’re married to a Jew and you and Adam could just decide that your son’s a Jew. Maybe when the last one’s gone, the last person who felt like they had a right to call themselves a Real Jew, Jewish can just be something you …’
‘Something you can choose to be?’ said Steve, ‘something you can call yourself? Something where you are the one who gets to decide what it means. Something to do just because you want to, because it speaks to you, because you think the idea of one God and the Sabbath are beautiful?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Ellie. ‘When you say it like that, it sounds a bit improbable.’
Naomi Alderman wrote this short story in response to: Connection, Continuity and Community British Jewish Women Speak Out, a review initiated and implemented by an independent group of professional and lay women led by Rosalind Preston OBE. The full report can be found at: www.boardofdeputies.org.uk/file/ConnectionContinuityCommunity.pdf
Naomi Alderman’s new novel The Lessons will be published by Penguin in April 2010.