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Why I Went on BirthWrong

Connecting to my Jewish identity in the South of France

Tamara Micner
May 17, 2017
François Schwarz/Flickr
Port de Marseille, August 2014.François Schwarz/Flickr
François Schwarz/Flickr
Port de Marseille, August 2014.François Schwarz/Flickr

The opportunity to participate in BirthWrong, described by organizers as “a trip for anyone who’s sick of Israel’s stranglehold on Jewish culture,” has appealed to me since I first learned about its launch in 2015. Last month that dream came true when I traveled with 30 young Jews and non-Jewish allies from Europe, North America, South Africa, and Israel to the south of France.

Run by the London-based collective Jewdas, my four-day trip to Marseille in April would include the chance to “eat May Day sardines with locals, get pissed, [do] Havdallah on the beach, get pissed, learn about the 1,000 year history of Jews in Marseille, and get pissed.” Sounded like a good time to me and apparently I wasn’t the only one: According to the trip’s primary organizer, Lilinaz Evans, Jewdas received twice as many applications as could be accommodated. Unlike Birthright, I had to pay for my travel to France, and for some food and libations (about $200 in total), but the rest was set up for a nominal fee.

The idea behind BirthWrong is to give Jews and non-Jews alike the opportunity to learn more about diaspora cultures while getting to know like-minded people and deepening our identities. As the trip’s name suggests, with Jewdas’ trademark irony (the group’s name is indeed a pun on Judas), BirthWrong shares some aims with Birthright (Get some sun! Bond with Jews! Drink!), yet it aims to counter the influence of Zionism and to provide community to Jews who might not identify as supporters of a Jewish state. The trip was advertised on Facebook with the following questions:

Are you Jewish, or interested in Jewish history and culture?

Are you lefty?

Do you want to do fun Jewish stuff that isn’t about Israel? Do you want to learn fantastic things about our history and diaspora with other cool lefty people? …

… Don’t worry if you don’t pray. Plenty of people won’t be either. Don’t worry if you don’t drink. You can always do MDMA. Or chill out in a museum or coffeehouse—there will be plenty of non-partiers along.

BirthWrong appealed to me because I’ve always lived in the diaspora—in Canada, the U.S., and now England—and it is through these locations, and the people in them, that I connect to Judaism. I’m mostly culturally Jewish—with sporadic visits to Vancouver’s Renewal shul Or Shalom, and Grassroots Jews in London—and I identify as a non-Zionist. Like me, many of the BirthWrong participants, who hailed from Vienna, Johannesburg, Seattle, Paris, and elsewhere, are committed to where they live, experience anti-Semitism in different contexts, are proud of their Jewishness, and fuse their religious identities with political activism. Many of us use our ethnicity as a springboard for countering discrimination and oppression toward Jews and other minorities.

The scene at the May Day march in Marseille. (Image by Jewdas)
The scene at the May Day march in Marseille. (Image by Jewdas)

The trip kicked off with a communal Shabbat dinner at Dar Lamifa, a left-wing activist space. I appreciated eating the vegan kneidlach and kugel (made by Marseille-based BirthWrong organizer Keziah Berelson); our meal was followed by show tunes played on the piano led by Jewdas co-founder Joseph Finlay. We also met the local Jewish and non-Jewish activists who would host us for the weekend in their homes.

That Saturday some of us BirthWrongers went to morning services at the 19th-century Grande Synagogue de Marseille, the oldest of the city’s 40 synagogues (and the only one with an Ashkenazi prayer space—in the basement). Kiddush included green olives and pastis (anise-flavored liqueur) and we were the last ones to leave, sated and tipsy. While snacking I chatted with a woman from Alsace who boasted about having married a man from Marseille who was descended from the Juifs du Pape—meaning “the Pope’s Jews”—who the Vatican allowed to live in the nearby Avignon-Carpentras area in the Middle Ages while Jews were banned from most other parts of present-day France. (Some of these Jews were the Vatican’s financiers.)

After a picnic lunch, we held a workshop on anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism on the left (and how and when to distinguish between the two) at l’Équitable Café, the sister space of Dar Lamifa, which hosts free concerts, debates, and performances and has an affordable membership model to facilitate community participation. For the French participants, it was the first time they had discussed anti-Semitism in a communal, political space: France’s culture of laïcité (often translated as “secularism”) means religious identity and practice are generally kept private, and are rarely part of political discussions or actions. (The notion has evolved from a desire to limit the influence of the Catholic church to, oftentimes, targeting Islam.) This was the first time they were with Jews whose identity and heritage inform our activism, and some of whom wear tzitzit or kippot publicly.

BirthWrong Havdalah ceremony. (Image by Jewdas)
BirthWrong Havdalah ceremony. (Image by Jewdas)

For me, it was a relief and surprisingly productive to discuss anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism with people who accept that the two are distinct and don’t always go hand in hand. Most people on the trip believed that Israel’s occupation of Palestine needs to come to an end and believe in Palestinian self-determination. I’ve found that this combination of beliefs are rare to find in the Jewish circles I have encountered in London, and I was grateful to be a part of this group. Afterward, we did Havdalah outside and went to the local anti-fascist bar.

The next day, a Sunday, I joined on a hike along the coastal cliffs outside Marseille, and a walking tour led by local anarchist Lou Marin, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s history. (I was delighted to learn about former resident Anna Seghers, a German-Jewish novelist in the 1920s-’70s who was involved in the Communist party and lived in Mexico during the War). We also received a lecture from historian Alessi dell’Umbria, an independent historian and essayist who just published a book (in French) on Marseille’s history. While the talk wasn’t about Jewish history specifically, we did learn that Provence’s Jewish history dates back to the first century, with waves of immigration during the Inquisition and after North African independence in the 1950s and ’60s. Most of the pre-Holocaust community was deported and killed, and today, Marseille is almost 10 percent Jewish, most of whom are Sephardim.

I felt the Jewishness of Marseille most on Monday when we marched in the International Workers’ Day rally, singing in Yiddish and wearing “Jewish Antifascist Action” stickers. Several Jewish and non-Jewish Marseillais took interest in our group: It was rare to see people being so openly Jewish in public. When some of us went into a bar to use the bathroom, a man playing checkers with his friend saw our stickers and told us, “I’m a Cohen on both sides!”

BirthWrong was an important experience to me because, along with Jewdas, it’s the first time as an adult that I felt I could be myself (both Jewishly and politically) in the same space. The organizers aimed to give people who are interested in diaspora histories and cultures, and aren’t Zionist, a community to be part of, and a way to learn about and experience Jewish communities and the diverse ways in which people are Jewish around the world. On the train back to London, I reflected on the trip and played cards with some of the other participants, and enjoyed a last baguette, with a bottle of pastis in my backpack. I’ve been going through it steadily ever since.

Tamara Micner is a freelance journalist and playwright who lives in London and hails from Vancouver. She also writes for the Christian Science Monitor, London Review of Books, and VICE.