Diaspora Diaries: Does being Jewish mean you should be an expert on Judaism?

Given the level of hostility directed at Jews, including the virulent anti-Semitism from some quarters, do we have a choice but to be ambassadors?

A Jewish man wraps teffilin at the Central Synagogue in Havana. (photo credit: BENNY LEVIN PHOTOGRAPHY)
A Jewish man wraps teffilin at the Central Synagogue in Havana.
There’s little more tedious than a person who only cares about one thing. A golf bore, for example, or a pedant whose preoccupation with grammar dominates every conversation. The more partisan folk on twitter, whose every bleat is about praising their chosen party’s political agenda, attacking the opposition or dismissing anyone who dares point to a hole in the argument.
After all, the greatest political commentators draw on art and science to discuss the legislative process. The best presenters are founts of information about subjects reaching far and wide. The teachers we remember fondly might have been experts in their field, but they could look beyond it too.
And yet, perhaps because so much is done within the parameters of 140 characters these days, it’s easy to pigeonhole. We assume the right-wing armchair pundit will always support the policies of his party, or that the football fan will only ever have a conversation about where their team is in the league. We – led, inevitably, by the media’s example – view people in terms of set categories: wife and mother, actor, doctor, victim, feminist. When, of course, it is often possible to be several of those at the same time.
The other night, at a comedy event, my heart sank. It had come up. You know, the elephant in the room. Judaism, and the Jewish state, in this case both, wrapped together in one neat parcel. The event had nothing to do with either, and the comments were not particularly contentious, but still my heart sank. I felt the gazes of those I was with, who know that I am Jewish, turn to me to see how I’d react to the jokes.
And it’s happened, so many times. That moment when the presenter, comedian, or lecturer utters those dreaded words, “Think of the Jews, for example.” And, inevitably, it feels like he’s talking to you.
And of course, you dread the truly opinionated and angry; the people for whom the discovery that you have a religious leaning is an invitation to debate fundamentalism. But more than that, my heart sinks because of the expectation that I’m some kind of spokesperson for my faith. That I'm different, and that I know different things.
Because the sense seems to be – once you’re defined in people’s minds as particularly one thing, in this case, Jewish –that you can speak for the many. That you'll have a proper, educated view on that article in the paper, that you'll know whether a jokey aside mentioning a Jew was a joke or something more sinister. That you have an opinion on anything to do with these matters, and that you always want to share it.
Invariably, you are called upon to have a take on everything from that haredi man who wrapped himself in a plastic bag while flying over a cemetery, to the Jewish plot-line in the latest hit TV series. There’s the assumption that you know all the reasons behind kashrut, or exactly what Genesis Chapter 19 says and what it means.
Of course, most of the time the questions are good-natured. And it happens with most issues; meat eaters assume every vegetarian is a standard-bearer for every other non-carnivore out there, while feminists are expected to be up to speed on every misogynistic advert out there. It’s natural – we always want the expert view, the perspective from someone in the know.
Yet there are times when you long for the option of taking a backseat in the discussion. As proud as I am of my Jewish heritage and identity, I don’t always want to be the flag bearer for it. I’m many things – Jew, woman, daughter, sister, wife, arachnophobe, vegetarian, West Wing fan; but at the same time, I’m also just me. Occasionally, I want to not feel the pressure to answer the questions, or have to form an opinion, as I can when any other issue comes up.
After all, simply being Jewish, even proudly so, doesn't make you an expert. Confronted with a particularly probing question, one to which I have no considered view, occasionally I want to say I just don't know. The problem is - can I? Can any of us? Coming from a minority, we surely have a responsibility to speak up every time we get asked, however trivial the matter. Every time we have the chance to engage with someone interested, explain something perceived as unusual or different, or even to correct a misconception, shouldn't we jump at it?
Given the level of hostility directed at Jews, including the virulent anti-Semitism from some quarters, do we have a choice but to be ambassadors? With so much misinformation out there about Jews and our practices, how can we justify keeping schtum?
For if we fail to engage with the innocent questions, what happens when the truly vile ones come up? Yet another question to which I suspect I have no expert answer.

Jennifer Lipman is a writer living in London. She tweets on @jenlipman. She is the former Comment Editor of The Jewish Chronicle and has written for a number of British newspapers and online publications including The Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian and The Times.