Jenny Diski died April 28, 2016. This essay was published May 21, 2015.
The question is easy enough. What does it feel like to be Jewish within the worldwide diaspora of Jewishness. The answer feels quite simple. It feels like me. It feels like my people came from a sandy bunch of travelers who wandered around their hot desert in the day and freezing in the evening wilderness. Although it was never clear to me where anyone was going or what their journey was in aid of. They marched in a line, as depicted on the front covers of the Ladybird Books, people leading camels by their reins, the camels themselves laden on either side with wicker baskets filled with exotic goods. Dates, for example. We never saw date at home except at Christmas and then only in colored-pencil-shaped boxes with similar illustrations. There might be a well in the drawing around which beautiful dark young women lowered earthen pots and poured the water they brought up into troughs to allow their camels to drink after a heavy day’s work. It seemed a leisurely sort of life. The young women chattering and gossiping as they performed their necessary chores. Not much of a hurry about it. The camels were thirsty but not parched. There was time for chattering and conversation. Their clothes were different. That was one thing that proclaimed the historicity of the illustration. They weren’t us, because we didn’t wear sweeping robes of multicolored cloth held at the shoulders by brooches. We wore socks and shoes that also belonged to the styles of other sets of these books. Here, two children disappearing down a long road, wearing sturdy comfortable leather sandals that did up with a metal buckle. Each of them was one of us. The boy in his short trousers was a friendly but mischievous boy, his clothes a tale the worse for wear for his boyish tumbling life, while the girl, neater, wore a uniform which reflected the boy’s, but was still much more than his, for her playful days sitting neatly on the school playground, playing pick-up-sticks, and throwing two, three, or even four balls against a wall keeping them all in motion until she lost control and one or more of the balls fell and caused a general tumbling of the neat thudding of ball against the brick wall. They represented us and I don’t recall feeling captured in that moment so much as in our whole life in the illustration. More interesting was the road they traveled along. Where it went. How far, where it stopped if anywhere, and if they had enough food for the journey they were clearly on. I was still the girl and he was the boy, but they were both as sturdy as each other. We’d easily win any fight that broke out between one of his crew or one of mine. We were competent and kept enemies at bay. We were enough with and for each other, ambling along on a warm but not unreasonably hot day, marching along the road eventually to wear the shoes out.
No, the question was what did my Jewishness feel like to those two children who in every aspect seemed entirely foreign. I imagined my head and shoulders swathed in draping clothes, keeping the sand and wind out of our eyes. I could see the spot where we had taken off our shoes and foolish socks and left them for some poor child from a faraway place and a faraway time to pick up and think, mmm, these will be useful the button on the level T-Strap would be at preventing them from slipping off in the sand and wind and the sturdiest leather and those rubber soles would last as long, far longer, as the feet had long outgrown them. The T-Bar strap bag made in heavy leather was as safe as any bag they might produce, and could carry at least as much, offering the camels a steady burden. So behind the two children as we walked, a scattering of clothes, no longer needed, or not yet needed. It all made perfect sense to me.
I admit to being a bit baffled if not embarrassed by our present-day cumbersome neatness, and regretted the lack of camels for all kinds of reasons I could not fathom but I was sure would make sense when it came it me.
Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?
With silver shell and cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row
I had no more to do with our Mary-Mary-quite-contrary than I did with girls at the well, drawing water for their cattle and their older men and women. The drawings were all of a simple style, almost cartoonish, but with a look of seriousness, of getting on with their business at a break in the day. Laughter, chatter, who was seen looking too often at whom, who had hitched her skirt just a little too high as she passed a young shepherd. All the signs were read, reinterpreted, and then related in the form of the story of the day. Laughter, cattle bells, contrary Mary, now we must get on or we won’t have the tents up by nightfall. The illustrators had every line of the gowns, men and women, down to an art. They knew what bodies did to outer cloth as it hung from the body or lay discarded on the road.
I had no sense of strangeness from these uniformly illustrated books of how Samuel was called to become a great Prophet, or Jonah was trying to evade his fate when a fish suddenly ate him and set him back down where belonged to get on with his prophesying. I didn’t mind the call of voices coming to you in the night; I called them dreams. Samuel, Samuel, come to me. Three nights in a row until the elderly grandfather understood the meaning to the words to Samuel from God and told him what they were to mean. The cost of a not very desirable life.
In none of these stories and their books, the texture, the smells, the feel of the paper was I estranged. Things happened, sometimes weird things happened, especially at night, when people called out to each other meaningless cries of remembering or forgetting. Why would I doubt those books, whether they were real or not. Real or not didn’t much concern me. What happened in the night in our small flat in central London was much stranger and more savage.
Anyway, books were books and what happened in them took part in a world of its own. The universe of story and place escaped. During my 67 years I’ve had reason to read the first five books of the bible. First the illustration that drew you in to its matter ad-style. Then the feel and smell of the papers that promised a disappearance of the world I seemed to be in, to the world that allowed me in and transformed my world wherever it should be. Samuel: A small boy in a stripped nightshirt, rubbing his eyes, what is it grandfather? But the grandfather knew nothing, then the next night and then the next until the grandfather finally understood whose voice was calling whom. I felt sorry for the Grandfather, just another also ran, a small subject in the man’s story, Samuel and God, not Samuel and Grandfather. Eventually it came to the Grandfather, Eli, that Samuel not Eli was the one who would have the word of god. Only a book written millennia ago would have neglected to notice that there was a shop nearby which sold iPhones and there was no need really for this rule of three. All this getting up and down. The waking and the sleeping in the middle of the night, “Hallo?” “Samuel? Is that you?” God. “Well, I am the lord thy God and I’ve decided that you will be my prophet” “Thank you, God.” “God, Sir?” “Yes Samuel, what is it?” “What’s a prophet? Will I have to go to a different school?”
“Oh, yes. It will all be quite different. But you’ll have a chance at growing up and keeping to your heritage? I think you’ll be fine.” “OK. What shall I prophesy?” “This and that. Things that put fear in the peoples’ hearts so that they will do as you say, which will be what I tell you.” “OK. Can I go back to bed now?” “Yes, if you want to, sleep well.” Not much chance of that. Your world turned upside down. But God’s good at choosing. Never the brightest ones. Never those with too much imagination. You don’t want your prophets looking round corners and seeing what lay ahead. The coming Chaos. Not since Job, God learned his lesson there. The simple witted ones. Not those who would see round the corners of their lives.
But all this was my childhood. Disturbed by my parents, who made a human nonsense of everything. I had the growing up, before I got under weight. I was special, it turned out. I saw round corners. I got a message not, “Jennifer, Jennifer, Wake up, wake up. Wake up.” “What?” “You I have chosen you to be my prophet.” “What’s that?” I wasn’t one of the dumb ones. “What’s a prophet and why do you want me to do it?” I got the gist easily. Basically it meant being a pariah, of being without friends, of knowing, but knowing nothing useful enough like how to keep house or cook an egg, know what’s round the next corner and there’s nothing to be done about it except, shout it out just before the corner came. Not much job satisfaction, there. Are you kidding? You’ve chosen the wrong donkey.
“But, Jennifer, you know the story.” You will be revered as a prophet. No thanks. Try some other nudnik.
So Jo Schmo Diski—Jennifer to her friends of which there weren’t many—was told she had inoperable cancer of the lung. That she might live from between 3 months and a year and a half. And then she’ll die. The end of her story. Not an unremarkable one. 68 or 69 years, good enough. Too many live much shorter lives and have far more trouble. All things pretty well, a fair enough life. Parents crap, but you can’t have everything.
Has my illness caused me to look at religion again and consider its place in my life under the circumstances? The circumstances being that I’ve got pulmonary fibrosis and lung cancer, both inoperable and fatal. Answer, what kind of idiot would I be to suddenly find myself believing in god, the heavens and afterlife, the whole fairy bucket? Why would my mind change because I’m going to die? Nonsense is nonsense. I’ve never found any reason on earth or in heaven or anyplace else to believe that a good guy is going to come over the gulch and whisk me a fiction just in time to miss an eternity of purgatory or hell. Nicer if I could think that, obviously. Nicer to believe that the three bears will have just the right heat of porridge and size of bed. Nicer, but nicer doesn’t make real. Nicer to believe that the queue at the door of heaven is so organized that waiting seems like no time at all and how at the end everyone receives a chocolate éclair for their efforts. How can I believe what I have never believed before in my life just because I’m dying, I’ve been dying since I was born. What difference now? I’d prefer to stay with Peter Pan, adventure with Alice, swim with the water babies, but I don’t expect any of them to turn up either.
WHO and HOW can anyone with an intelligence higher than a wombat believe in god and all his signs and portents? Clever, admirable people in Cambridge, why are you on your knees in King’s College Chapel. What can you be imagining? That at the last minute you will see, understand and be saved. No. You won’t. You’ll just be a particle of nothing, like the rest of us. Know nothing, Dead. Unknown. Unknowing. That condition that refuses, is incapable. You’re gone. Next. “Hi, Remember me? I’m Jennifer. Prophets are 10c a dozen? Well the market’s driven down a lot of things.”
I would find it for you if I had the box of old books I had. The little tales from the bible that people now cherish for their awful artwork and naked storytelling. Or we will surely have to consider the fuss and nonsense around the death of Christopher Hitchens who received no end of ghoulish messages from ‘friends and admirers’ telling him they bet he’s changed his tune now his mortality is upon him. Why wait until we’re dying? Is the question really that death is so scary that surely its imminence will have caused us to throw up our hands in supplication and resignation and cry out for the love of the lord we heard so much about and thought what a lot of infantile rot, it turns out we do believe in you after all. Is that OK? Will that get me out of the whole sticky consciouslessness mess I didn’t ask to be allocated to? There’s a too late clause. And in any case I DON’T HAVE ANY FAITH IN THIS INFANTILE NONSENSE. If I had I’d jump at the chance of an eternity of playground. I don’t believe in you, “salvation,” I never have and I never will. And very soon I won’t even be.
Do you have another question? Here’s one from me, then. Has my illness caused my religion to look at me again and consider its place in my life? Jewish certainly means something to me. All those people who are doing a hip shaking dance of death, certain that there’s something to die towards, good luck to you. If it makes you feel better about popping your clogs, all that brain, knowledge, all the knowledge I’ve failed to come across, then good luck to you. I don’t have any way of finding myself taking soft options, even when the hardest option is unthinkable. You reach the end of thinking, your tippy toes on the edge of the universe and there’s nothing there. You are going back where you came from. Nowhere. And nowhere wasn’t such a terrible thing was it? Only once you were told about it did it seem disturbing. An eternity of what you had before you were born, before sperm torpedoed into egg and something started to happen.
Does being Jewish go beyond a hankering for chicken soup when I’m ill? Do I hear a call from the backside of the mountain. “Jennifer, Jennifer, wake up and walk with me.” “What’s that grandma?” “It’s the spirit of the lord my child calling to you to follow him and walk in his steps, now you are dying.” It’s a lifeline for you to hang on tight to at the moment of your death and say: “Nah nah nah nana I’ve got a god and heaven and everything and I don’t have to be frightened of non-existence. I’m having cherryade and ice cream till kingdom come, whenever that is.” I need to do a bit of checking about the afterlife business. It doesn’t seem to be so clearly sorted out as the inner and outer circles of Dante or the metempsychosis of the Eastern religions, but there’s no just nothing waiting for me on the day that death comes to call. I’m saved. I’ve got my very own Jewish afterlife, whatever that is, and you better get yourself one too, because I’m telling you right here and now nothingness is a pretty scary thing to imagine. Especially if you’re not feeling well.
Let me put it to you. All my life religion has been outside my bedroom window knocking like a swaying branch in the wind, saying, let me in, Jennifer. You’re going to need me some day. You’ll be scared witless at the prospect of non-consciousness, and without the brilliant creation of religion there’s nothing out there to help with the fear and trembling. Death, Jennifer. Just death. Nothing. The end. Screen goes black.
In the first place who are you to call me Jennifer? It was a name my parents used when especially cross with me, and it holds no water any more. I’m Jenny Diski and will be until I’ve dropped dead and your book covers have rotted into a mulch for feeding hungry new seedlings. So you can call me Jenny, or Madam or Fuckface, but enough with the Jennifer. It’s not going to get you anywhere. Secondly, you are making a lot of noise for something that wants to be considered seriously. I do my thinking in the quiet. No great masses or little meditations. Silence does me fine. Also robes and accoutrements. Scrolls, Ancient Hebrew. The separation of men and women. All that. Leaves me cold. I don’t mind the odd mass in Notre Dame. A touch of grandeur doesn’t hurt sometimes. But what has all that to do with belief. I believe in the absolute silence of non-existence. The kind of non-existence that is so non-existent that not the smallest of gnats could prod its antennae between it and the other non-existence. Simply what it means. Does not exist. Is not. Nothing. Nada. We’re here by a few strokes of evolutionary accident and if we’ve had a good time, we’re pleased about our sliver of light in the darkness. Otherwise, it just is, or rather isn’t. You’ve had your time in the sun. Now it’s all gone. All the stuff you worked so hard to get into your marvelous brain. Knowledge, pictures, writing. Gone. As dust. Not even as sentient as dust. Nothing. Can’t you get that into your non-existent overheated head? Of course not. You don’t exist. There’s nowhere for thought to live, no nook or cranny, no hidey hole. You’re done, finished, dead. In one end, out the other. It’s a waste. But only if you exist. If you don’t, and I won’t I won’t give a beetle’s scale for the waste or anything else. Just stuff that happened for a minute or two in the enormity of this tiny part of the smallest of universes. Nothing. Nothing else. Gone. Remembered. Forgotten.
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