DiversifYA: Yael Tischler

YaelToday, Yael Tischler joins us at DiversifYA! Yael is a YA fantasy writing bookseller (yay!), world traveler, and when she’s not writing, she’s most likely to be found on her bike or spontaneously belting show-tunes. So all in all, she’s pretty much very awesome.

Yael co-wrote a great fantastic blog post about diversity in YA literature last week, so you might want to give that a read too! You can follow Yael on Twitter here and read about her experiences and that of other writers for young people from the Writing For Young People MA course at Bath Spa University here.

1. How do you identify?

I am a Jew.

More specifically, I am a progressive, egalitarian Jew who also places a high value on tradition and ritual. I don’t view these things as mutually exclusive, but rather as a point of departure for struggle and growth.

2. What did it feel like growing up as a Jew?

For the most part, my experience growing up Jewish was extremely positive. Canada, where I grew up, is one of the most accepting countries in the world, so I rarely felt aware of my otherness. Judaism was a strong presence in my childhood – my most vivid memories of growing up involve things particular to Jewish culture, e.g. going to Jewish summer camp, attending family services at synagogue and celebrating Jewish holidays.

On the more negative side, I grew inherited the Jewish cultural baggage of internalized victimhood. My grandparents survived the 2nd World War. That’s still very fresh. And there’s this story we tell ourselves about how throughout history we’ve always been persecuted, so it’s only a matter of time before we get persecuted again and we can’t get too comfortable. It is true that we have a history of oppression – the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, the Holocaust. But I don’t think that’s a healthy cultural narrative or even the only possible narrative for us. It puts us on the constant defensive. And it ignores periods in Jewish history where we’ve flourished – the Golden Age of Spain, the Enlightenment, not to mention the present day. What this meant for me is that whenever there was a hint of something anti-Semitic happening, my family made it their business to speak up. I remember vividly when my Social Studies teacher in grade 8 taught us at that the Jews killed Jesus. She and my school principal both received rather opinionated phone calls from my mother.

There’s this very real underlying fear that people don’t really accept us, that if we’re not careful, it’ll happen again. I’ve learned to be less afraid as I’ve grown older and made more non-Jewish friends, but sometimes I still find myself projecting prejudice onto others that may or may not actually be there. I also acknowledge that I’m lucky to have lived all my life in countries that are very accepting of Jews; there are many countries, even today, where anti-Semitism is alive and well.

3. What are the biggest challenges? Conversely, what are the quirks/perks?

So, being a white Jew (NB: not all Jews are white), I am often an invisible minority. I realize this is a privilege. I can easily hide my minority status if I want and I don’t confront my otherness on a daily basis. However, when I’m in situations that remind me of my otherness, it’s still uncomfortable.

For example, this might sound silly, but: Christmas. There is an assumption in the West that in December, you are preparing for Christmas. You are shopping for everyone. You are singing carols. You are going to spend time with your family and you are going to get lots of presents. The decorations go up, your school does Christmas card-making, you have to go to your school’s Christmas assembly. People ask you what you’re doing for the holiday and wish you Merry Christmas. As an adult, I realize that this is all coming from a good place. But it is a yearly reminder that the dominant culture isn’t my culture. And that most of the culture doesn’t even stop to think whether their culture is also everyone else’s culture. I still meet people who find it unfathomable that I’m not doing anything for Christmas, even when I explain that it’s not part of my religion. Sometimes they say that they feel bad for me, and I find that strange. I have my own holidays, and they’re pretty awesome. I mean, I don’t feel bad for you that you don’t get to celebrate Passover (OK, maybe I do feel a little bad. Passover is basically the bomb).

Also, you end up having to go to school and work on a calendar that isn’t your calendar and doesn’t take note of your holidays. For example, I missed orientation for my graduate degree programme because it was scheduled on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

Additionally, I face assumptions about what it means to be religious, and those assumptions are often grounded in a Christian understanding of religion. These assumptions are a) as a woman, I must be a fan of being oppressed by the patriarchy, b) I must be backwards about LGBT rights, c) I must be a hugely illogical person because I must believe in God, and d) I must be sexually repressed. While there are patriarchal, anti-gay, blindly-believing, sexually repressed religious/Jewish people out there, I’m not one of them. I’m a huge feminist: I wear a tallit and kippah (prayer shawl and skullcap, traditionally only worn by men) for prayer, I know how to lead services and chant Torah in Hebrew and in my denomination, woman can be rabbis and there is no segregation between the sexes for prayer. I believe in the full integration of LGBT-identified individuals into all aspects of Jewish life – I’ve never been part of community that thought otherwise, and I never would be. I don’t know if I believe in God and to be honest, that’s not a huge deal to me. Judaism isn’t a religion about dogma, it’s a practiced-based religion. So my big soul-searching questions have never surrounded what I do or don’t believe, but rather which practices I choose or choose not to take on. As to being sexually repressed – let’s just say, Judaism doesn’t come with the doctrine of original sin and one of the most important commandments is to be fruitful and multiply ;).

As well, I continually confront assumptions about what my opinion must be about Israel. I.e. You must be super conservative and support Israel. I find myself dragged into very circular pointless debates, because people already think they know what I think. I’d rather people just ask me what I think.

One of the loveliest things about being Jewish is that we have this culturally-ingrained idea that we’re all one big family and we have to look out for each other (the darker undercurrent to this is the implied “because nobody else will”). While that may be an artificial construct, it’s still nice to feel like you’ll always have friends wherever you go in the world. I met this girl once travelling in Cornwall and it was all like, “You’re Jewish! I’m Jewish! We have so much in common! Let’s be best friends!” I’d seriously known her for two minutes before I asked her to come stay at my place in Bath if she was passing through. This was not weird at all. Equally, when I first moved to Bath, I connected with a Jewish family there via a Bristol synagogue and they invited me over for Yom Kippur pre-fast dinner without having met me or having any other connection to me. The continued to invite me over for Shabbat dinners after that. There’s this sense that we have to look out for our own, and we do, and that’s really great.

We also have some fantastic holidays! Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, is a beautiful time for spiritual reflection and starting over. Purim is a carnival holiday where we dress in costumes, get really drunk and read the story of Queen Esther. Passover celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, and our historical and present-day transitions from slavery to freedom. I find that the holidays provide a profound metaphorical framework for my year. And they’re also really fun.

4. What do you wish people knew about being Jewish?

Number one: not all Jews are white. Seriously folks, there is *no* such thing as looking Jewish. There are Ugandan Jews. Chinese Jews. Latin American Jews. Arab Jews. We are not all Woody Allen/Barbara Streisand clones.

Also, there’s a spectrum of observance. It’s not an all or nothing thing. I had a friend tell me once that I wasn’t “a proper Jew” because I wasn’t orthodox. It’s true that I don’t attend synagogue every day (or even every week), I don’t ascribe to a modest dress code, I touch boys (sometimes even non-Jewish boys! Horrors!) and I don’t keep strictly kosher. But I do have Shabbat dinners on occasion, attend synagogue when I feel like it, I fast on Yom Kippur, and I’m in a Jewish a capella group. I keep kosher to some degree – I won’t eat pork or unkosher meat, but I’ll eat vegetarian food anywhere. I also find that my practice is fluid – I take on certain practices if/when they make sense to me. I don’t take them on if/when they don’t. That’s not being hypocritical, that’s being a thinking person about your religion.

5. What are the biggest clichés/stereotypes you’ve seen?

There are a whole lot of these (guess these accumulate when you are a long-oppressed people ;)).

First off, the gender-specific ones:

If you’re female, you are a JAP (Jewish American Princess) – spoiled, entitled, demanding, self-centred and superficial. Think Rachel from Glee. You will grow up into a Jewish mother – a domineering, pushy, opinionated woman who overfeeds you, nags you constantly to get married and have children, and guilts you into doing whatever she says.

If you’re male, you’re an emasculated, neurotic, socially awkward, probably bespectacled man who looks somewhat like Woody Allen. You are the product of growing up with a Jewish Mother and dating Jewish American Princesses (or indeed nobody at all, as you are so awkward).

And/or

You have the good fortune of being a Nice Jewish Boy. I.e. You have great family values, you’re ridiculously sweet and considerate, you’re studious, smart and highly educated, and probably a doctor or a lawyer (or at the very least studying to be one). You make your parents proud and you do the right thing.

There’s also some nasty and damaging anti-Semitic ideas out there that haven’t quite died: that we’re rich, cheap, great with money, and crafty (hello Shylock). That we control the media (would be cool if this were true), that we drink the blood of Christian children (I am surprised therefore at the lack of Jewish characters during the YA vampire explosion), and are generally plotting to Take Over the World (it is what we do every night, Pinky…)

BONUS: What is your advice for writers writing diverse characters?

For Jewish characters specifically – I think we need more stories that aren’t about the Holocaust. It’s important to commemorate tragedy, but we also need stories that explore other aspects of Jewish history and identity. We have so many stories about how we are victims. We need to start telling stories where we are the heroes. Stories that empower us. I’d love a story about the Jewish involvement in the US Civil Rights movement. Or one that takes place during medieval Spain, where for a long time, Jews prospered under Muslim rule. I’d like to see Jewish characters owning their identities in stories that aren’t necessarily historical books or issue books. I got so happy when I discovered Cassie Clare’s Mortal Instruments, because the main character’s best friend, Simon, happens to be Jewish. And he got to be in a fantasy novel!!! Philippa Gregory had a seriously cool Jewish heroine in The Queen’s Fool; she was a converso (secret Jew) living in Elizabethan England. Marge Piercy wrote a Jewish cyberpunk book called He, She and It – I want more of that!

For diverse characters generally – keep asking these questions and keep making the effort! It’s scary to write about people who aren’t like you, but we’re not going to diversify the YA landscape unless we all make the commitment to do it. You might not get it right, but as long as you’re coming from a good place, doing your research, staying away from stereotypes wherever possible and you’re open to feedback, that’s helping the cause. Remember, diverse people are *gasp* people, too!

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2 Responses to DiversifYA: Yael Tischler

  1. Speaking of Simon in The Mortal Instruments series…wasn’t he a vampire? Just wondering because you mentioned that there weren’t any Jewish vampires during the YA vampire explosion…

  2. Indeed! He’s the only one I know of, though. Carry the banner, Simon!