Letter from London – Civility under the snow
By Antony Lerman | 23/12/2010
Jew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, atheist—whoever you are, there's no escaping Britain's coldest winter since 1910 and the snow that has blanketed much of the country. Even fleeing to warmer climes is best not attempted as most of the airports, the Eurostar to the continent and much of the road network is in chaos. I felt like a resident of an American town well used to snow every winter as I performed the utterly unfamiliar task of clearing the snow from the path and steps leading to our front door
Snow homogenises. Everything takes on that winter wonderland look and the distinctions between the paths and the green space on Hampstead Heath are obliterated. You can suffer with your neighbours if you share a dislike of the treacherous, uncleared paths or the frozen garbage bin lids. Or you can join the parents and kids as they trek to the nearest hillock with purpose-built or improvised sledges.
The snow also somehow secularises. There may be all the usual Christmas imagery and paraphernalia around, which anyway has increasingly become divorced from the spiritual message Christianity wishes to offer at this time of year, but with all the emphasis on disruption to ordinary life, the cost of keeping warm, the need to watch out for elderly neighbours, there seems even less space for the overt religiosity we're used to as the 25th of December approaches.
I can understand how devout Christians must lament this, even as they look about and delight in the way the snow legitimises their image of the Jesus story. But for a multicultural society, the dilution of Christmas religiosity is not a bad thing.
Over 20 years ago a good friend, who is now a public figure of some standing and is very active in the Jewish community, told me that, on Christmas Day, her German-Jewish father, a Reform Jew, would sit in his study in his London home with the curtains closed and eat little more than an omelette and toast. This was the one day in the year that he felt most acutely the centuries of persecution by Christians and the ubiquity of accusations against Jews as Christ killers, and he wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. My parents had some sympathy with this attitude but saw no harm in accommodating to the festivities, even as they invented and used bastardised versions of the seasonal terminology that spoke too clearly of the Christian message.
Times have certainly changed. A Jew might still be fearful of current antisemitism, but there is virtually nothing to justify a feeling that an event is taking place which specifically excludes Jews and emphasises their otherness. And under the snow, even the consumerist excess, less evident both because it's harder to get to the shopping malls and the high streets in the retailing districts and because so many people are shopping on line, is somewhat muted. There's a feeling that we're all in this together. It may be superficial or temporary, but I would not dismiss any moments when people of diverse backgrounds and religious allegiances experience positive interactions. Of such small stitches is the cohesive fabric of a society built and strengthened.
One of my most vivid Zionist youth movement memories is of a winter camp hike in the hills of the English Lake District in thick snow. We were high up (relatively speaking) and the view and camaraderie were exhilarating. Our madrich was as tough as old boots. He wore shorts and an open-necked movement shirt all year round and led us in the hearty singing of Shir Hapalmach. It wasn't snowing but there was a strong wind which blew the snow into deep drifts and whisked off my friend Roger's kova and sent it tumbling down the hill, out of reach and then out of sight. We completed the walk in the dark, ending up in one of the Lake District's picturesque towns. Cold, damp, but happy, we were treated to hot tea, scones, butter, jam, cream and toasted tea-cakes in a traditional tea room. Magic.
It was a time when we had yet to develop full-blown Zionist ideological fervour, so the snow wasn't needed to reduce any incipient political tensions. And yet I was once told that it can act as such a restraining influence. Islam in the Caucasus is a much milder affair than in the Middle East and is explained partly by how the dominant religion there is, I believe, often referred to as ‘Islam under the snow'.
Oh for a Judaism under the snow. In the place where it's needed, there were violent storms recently, but no sign of climate change of such severity as to make the country into one that experiences lengthy winter snowfalls. Anyway, if you read Orhan Pamuk's Snow, about a snow-bound town in northern Turkey where Islamist violence ran riot, you'll know that the theory doesn't always stand up.
A project being undertaken by an enterprising young Jewish academic and his wife to introduce greater civility into intra-Jewish discussions about Israel-Palestine, by inviting protagonists from different camps to dine together privately, is a bit like spreading snow. Of course there should be more civility in such debates, but it could result in legitimising unacceptable and wrong ways of thinking if it only applies in private.
The snow here in London will pass. Civility in adversity will again be eclipsed by differences. But just as this second very harsh winter in a row is making experts wonder about a more permanent climate change effect, perhaps thoughtful experts in the Jewish world might take more seriously the existence of damaging permanent effects of a hard-faced Jewish tendency to be ‘holier-than-thou'. No amount of snow can hide the dangers of such religious and political fundamentalism.