'It’s Hard to Be a Jew in London'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: This woman's passion is to encourage Jewish Londoners to connect with their Judaism ■ The emotional experience of going to see Beyoncé in Warsaw, the hometown my grandma fled

Deborah Tamir.
Tomer Appelbaum

Deborah Tamir, 29, lives in London; flying to London

Hello, can I ask what brought you to Israel?

I went to a conference organized by the Jewish Learning Fellowship, in Jerusalem. All the participants made a pitch – they proposed programs about Judaism to donors in order to get funding for Jewish projects in London.

Which project won?

Mine.

Well done! Do you mind making your pitch again?

Sure. My idea is to send young people from London to New York – people of 25 to 30 who have completed their studies and are starting careers. They take a look at projects in New York that are connected to Jewish identity, and then return to London with the knowledge that they have acquired and implement it. For example, by giving courses on spirituality and Judaism. After all, spirituality isn’t just yoga, something that I’ve also done. There’s also Jewish spirituality, and we’re losing it.

Where did your motivation for the project come from?

Well, that was also part of my pitch. My brother is “a Jewish boy from a Jewish school,” yet he’s dating a non-Jew. My passion is to encourage Jewish Londoners to connect with their Judaism, because the number of those marrying out of the religion is very high.

Why does it bother you that he’s dating a non-Jew?

I don’t cry every night over it before I go to sleep at night (laughs), but to be the mother of Jewish children and to lead a Jewish life is something that is very meaningful to me. Especially because it’s hard to be a Jew in London – we barely even feel the holidays.

How does that affect you personally?

For example, it’s hard for me to meet other Jews. I’m 29, too old already. With us, everyone of that age is already married with children.

Do you feel that if the tradition is not upheld and the connection with Judaism is lost, this will have a concrete effect?

Yes. Not only will we decline numerically in the long term; in the short term we will also lose our connection to Judaism. I personally was very fortunate to have grown up in a Jewish way, but if children are born as non-Jews, it will be hard to continue the Jewish tradition. The bottom line, the main thing, for me, is for Jews of my age to possess some sort of Jewish identity, even if they marry non-Jews.

Does that come from a religious place?

My grandfather was Sir Sigmund Sternberg, who founded an interfaith forum in England. He wasn’t religious, he only believed in placing Jews in the forefront in London. I want to follow in his footsteps, at every level, and I am also not religious. I am Reform, I attended a shul and Jewish school, and sometimes I wish the Enlightenment hadn’t happened, because then we would still be united.

Can you tell me how you won the competition in Jerusalem?

I am mainly very, very persuasive. I spoke from a personal place about my brother, and about problems in London. I am very passionate. I am certain that with a group of people who are equally passionate, we will be able to implement the project.

In other words, to take Judaism in hand?

Yes. It’s not a job for rabbis but for young people, who first of all need to escape their apathy in the pub and join in order to have an influence.

What do you mean by “apathy in the pub”? I think that’s part of the charm of London, the culture of going to the pub for drinks after day at work.

My peers in England are apathetic. They sit in pubs and watch soccer matches. If in Israel it’s weed, in England it’s alcohol. In the end, it comes down to self-medicating for various traumas.

I suppose that if people like to be in some kind of a daze at the end of every day, there is a problem.

Yes. I even thought of writing a thesis on PTSD. My father is originally an Israeli and was an officer at Entebbe [in 1976]. He didn’t talk about it for 40 years. Totally repressed it. Sometimes he cries about it.

Oren Sosenko, Revital Sosenko-Barkai and Zohar Sosenko.
Tomer Appelbaum

Oren Sosenko, 1; Revital Sosenko-Barkai, 32; Zohar Sosenko, 31; from Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon; Revital is arriving from Warsaw

Hello – have you all just arrived?

Revital: No. I’m arriving from Poland, and Zohar and Oren spent the weekend together without me.

How did you spend your time in Poland?

We thought it could be fun if I spent a weekend relating to Beyoncé. From my viewpoint, she accompanied the birth of my son. I even said jokingly that we were pregnant together. My plan was to listen to her during the contractions, but Oren was born via C-section, during week 35, and was out within three hours. So I only went through the ultra-sound monitor stage with her, to the song “Halo.”

How was the concert?

It was Beyoncé and Jay Z together, which was amazing. Much more than just a show – closer to a movie or play – and all that after the release of “Lemonade” and Jay Z’s admission of cheating. There was a narrative.

Clearly many women have great admiration for Beyoncé, which is different from just liking her music. It’s beyond that. What would you say it is?

There’s something empowering in Beyoncé; we project every admired figure onto ourselves. In her creative work, Beyoncé describes many stages and processes she herself underwent; she has unapologetic feminine strength that many women are looking for. But you can find contradictions in her, too. She’s someone who can be easily admired by people looking for a complex woman who is in a stronger place today than her husband, though the world was aware of him long before her. The choice to see her in Warsaw was also meaningful for me.

Why?

I wanted to go to a concert by her in the city where my grandmother was born. My grandmother saw herself first of all as a Pole. She was attached to that nation, celebrated the king’s birthday, and her favorite park was the Saxon Garden. After World War II, she vowed never to return to Poland, because she felt betrayed. She didn’t understand how it all could have happened.

Still, there was a lot of happiness on this trip.

True. I decided I’d celebrate the way she loved Warsaw. So I reserved a hotel for myself and a girlfriend near the Saxon Garden, which we went to see on the first day. It was really moving. We had a day and a half before the show, and went sightseeing on the beautiful streets and ate great food. I truly felt that my grandmother was accompanying us.

In what way, for example?

We were on the way to a shopping center and got confused, and I found a kind of underground passage. Someone there was playing a tune on an electric guitar that my grandmother used to hum to my father and his sister, and afterward to us; at her funeral we hummed it over her grave. I stopped in front of him and began to get very emotional. I took out my camera and approached him and stopped crying. Then I gave him money and tried to explain why I was moved, what that tune means for me, but he just nodded and said “dziekuje” [“thank you”].

Wow, what a lovely, emotional coincidence. And Zohar, how did you spend the weekend with your son?

Revital: Zohar was with Oren for a whole weekend; they’re an amazing love story.

Zohar: Yes, it was incredible fun. We were at the pool, we ate in cafés. He squeezed my nipple a little and couldn’t understand why there was no milk.

Zohar, what do you think about fatherhood so far?

Zohar: Fatherhood is the most incredible thing in the world, and anyone who complains is a whiner.

Revital: After Oren came into our life, we both got to know Zohar’s paternal side. I’m not into this parenting thing any more than Zohar. True, I’m the one on maternity leave, but the decisions and the upbringing are not mine – we are parents together.