Telling antisemitism like it is, for teens

Telling antisemitism like it is, for teens

For the Times of Israel January 2021

With a fictional track record of writing about “crime and money and sex and drugs” for teenagers, British journalist Keren David has become one of the best-known and most prolific writers in the crowded YA (Young Adult) market.

But even though she has previously written about Jewish teenagers, she has never dealt with antisemitism in any of her books.

What We’re Scared Of, her 12th novel, is different. Its central theme is contemporary antisemitism and is the first YA book on the subject to be published in Britain. It is also the first book for British teens to contain direct testimony from a Holocaust survivor.

As David explains, the impetus for writing about antisemitism came not from her, but from her publishers, the prestigious Scholastic imprint.

“There’s been a lot of talk about what’s known as ‘own voices’ in YA”, she says. “These are books which look at marginalised, minority voices, that haven’t been heard, and getting the authentic stories from people’s experience. Scholastic were thinking about this and wondering about the groups which are least represented [in teenage fiction]. They realised that in Britain, there are very few Jewish writers for YA audiences, writing about Jewish kids”.

David is one of those few writers; so Scholastic approached her and asked if she would write a novel about antisemitism, and how it was experienced by Jewish teens. Her first response was not enthusiastic. “I was scared and worried and anxious”, she says. “I was asked at the peak of Labour antisemitism, so I was scared of putting my head up above the parapet. And I felt enormous responsibility to get it right. I worried that not only would any such book bring out the antisemites, but also that Jewish people would say they didn’t think I’d done it properly, that I hadn’t tackled it in the right way. It seemed to me that there was a lot I could get wrong.”

Additionally, David says, writing this book meant “going to places in my imagination that I’d rather not go to. The peak of the book is an attack on a synagogue and I really had to force myself to see how I would put that into a story — it wasn’t a fun plot”.

Actually, there is a lot of fun to be had in the early part of the book, since David’s protagonists are 14-year-old twin sisters, as unalike as possible and yet sharing a home life with an unspoken Jewish background that emerges as the driving force of the story. Readers learn about vicious on-line trolling, physical antisemitic attacks, and wild conspiracy theories — as well as the rollercoaster of teenage hormones and school life.

One twin, Evie, is dimly aware of their mother’s Jewish origins, but refuses, initially, to consider any Judaism in her own life. The other sister, Lottie, meets a Jewish friend at school and discovers a new and fascinating world which she embraces with wholesale abandon, accompanying the friend to synagogue and going to her home for Friday night dinners.

David is really good on the horrors of teenage school life, the importance of hanging out with the right crowd of friends, or of unfulfilled teen crushes on completely unsuitable boys. Adult readers will find the near universal embarrassment of their teenage years rushing back with a vengeance — the wrong things said to the right people, the wrong clothes, the fear of being laughed at, the inexplicable sulks.

“I had lots of ideas as to how I wanted to deal with this”, David says, “but there were really too many issues to fit into one character. I wanted a character who was a bit of a smart-mouth, who deflected things through comedy, and she became Evie. But I also wanted to have a character who was open to exploring Judaism, quite a serious girl. So I realised that they were two separate girls, and having twins gave a bit more dynamism to the plot”.

Twin Lottie’s friend Hannah, who introduces her to north London Jewish life, has an entertaining — if daunting —checklist of what being Jewish means: “One, going to shul. Two, keeping kosher. Three, living in the bubble. All my friends are Jewish apart from at school. Four, youth group. Five, tzedakah — that means charity — I volunteer at my shul’s drop-in centre for asylum seekers. Six, we go to Israel every year. Seven, since my batmitzvah, I’ve carried on studying and I can pretty much pray the whole additional service, not that anyone lets me at my shul…”

David says there are lots of real-life young Jews just like that, who, particularly if they don’t attend a Jewish school, have a whole, separate life. Her character, Lottie, finds this world attractive and wants to join it: but Hannah herself is frustrated at the restrictions imposed by Orthodox society on young women, and longs for more equality.

Keren David is well acquainted with the “outsider” status of her fictional twins: brought up in a small town outside London with an equally small Orthodox Jewish community, where her parents were leading and active members, she was one of only three Jewish pupils in her school. Because her family kept kashrut and Shabbat, David was obliged to take packed meals to school — and sit, by herself, at the designated lunch table for students who brought food from home.

She’d been due to take up a university place to read English but had “disastrous” exam results. Instead, aged 18, she was “saved” by a job as a messenger girl at the Jewish Chronicle, becoming a reporter and then working for a variety of local and national newspapers. (She did get a university place but decided she enjoyed journalism too much, ending on the Independent newsdesk).

When her husband got a job in Amsterdam, she and their baby daughter moved with him to Holland, working at a photojournalism agency there. The couple had a second child and lived in Amsterdam for seven years, returning to the UK in 2007.

It was an evening class in writing for teenagers which catapulted her into her YA career, though for the last five years she has also been a leading journalist at her first newspaper home, the Jewish Chronicle, where she is now associate editor for features.

The two parallel careers have now fed into each other with this, her latest book. She took a very calculated decision to put the real-life experiences of Mala Tribich, one of Britain’s best-known Holocaust survivors, in the novel.

She says: “I knew quite early on that there would have to be a Holocaust element in the book, and I wasn’t really prepared to fictionalise something so important. Why make something up when it’s so important that people understand the facts and know the truth? I’m absolutely repelled by the growing tendency to make things up on this issue. In an era of Holocaust denial and antisemitism, you can’t pretend. What happened to Mala is so much more dramatic than any fiction. We’re living in a very precious era, where survivors are still alive to tell their story — so why not tell it to as many people as we can?”

David is not worried that her readers will be unable to make the distinction between Mala’s story and the rest of the book. She hopes that Jewish teens, reading the book, will feel proud and stronger in their Jewish identity, while for non-Jewish readers, “I’d like to create allies and have people think about antisemitism, and educate themselves about Israel and Judaism. There’s s much ignorance. And there are also bigger questions, about what fear does to us. Fear creates prejudice and anxiety — we don’t like to talk about it very much”.

But with a unique seat at the table — commissioning writing on an array of subjects weekly for the Jewish Chronicle — Keren David has a good take on the temperature for British Jews. She thinks that the community has emerged from the Corbyn era “a little bit braver, a little bit stronger — and a bit readier to think about what it means to be Jewish.”

What We’re Scared Of, by Keren David, is published by Scholastic Books on January 21 2021.

  • 13 January, 2021