I am Jewish in the same way I am white and English. I don’t have a sense of triumph or superiority about it; it’s just how I happen to have been born. It’s only one aspect of my tumble of genetics—like my brown hair, my tendency to develop gall stones, and my long toes—and not something that defines me.
As an adult, I don’t specifically seek out Jewish friends. But as a child, my social life was a whirl of Jewish activities. First one Jewish social club, then another. Sunday school classes. Holiday camps. But it was one of the social clubs that lead to my first great humiliation.
It started with a quiz, one Sunday night. Now, I am good at quizzes. No, more than that. I am dangerous around quizzes. They awake a powerful beast inside me, one that’s constantly compelled to shout, “I KNOW THIS ONE”, and to hog the pencil and answer sheet. It took me a long time to realise that the actual purpose of a pub quiz should be to spend time with one’s friends and have fun, not to endlessly crush those around you with your unassailable powers of general knowledge.
I mean, it’s fun to show off your prowess (who knew what the last words were that Rimmer from Red Dwarf uttered*, thus winning the bonus round and the whole quiz for my team? Hi there!) But there’s also the opportunity to show tact and kindness to those around you, and to sharpen your diplomatic skills. Your teammates believe that number 7 in the picture round is a snap of Alanis Morissette, when you know it’s actually Dave Grohl**? This is your time to gently, insistently shine!
Anyway. As I say, I’m good at quizzes, which is how I made it through the first and second rounds of the national youth organisation’s quiz and into the grand final.
This final was a big deal. People had travelled from all over to be there. The grand prize was a place on the youth group’s foreign trip. The contestants were on stage, there was a big audience and and I was doing pretty well.
Until the Hebrew round. I had no idea there was going to be a Hebrew round. But there was.
Some bastard—some evil, evil bastard—had come up with a round where we had to write the Hebrew translations of English words on a sheet of A4. It would have been a breeze if you a) had a good working of the Hebrew language and b) knew how to write words in Hebrew.
Sadly, I had neither skill.
“Bicycle”, they announced. “Children.” “Ice cream.”
Around me, the other teens were scribbling the Hebrew equivalent on their pages. Me? I had nothing. I was seriously screwed. Actually, I did know one of the words; “yeladim” means “children” (this is the only thing I remembered from my many mornings at Hebrew school having repeatedly listened to the teachers bellowing “SHEKET YELADIM!”/”SHUT UP CHILDREN!”)
But it was no use. I had no idea how to write it—or anything, really—in Hebrew.
I had to hand something in. Blank pages seemed like too big an admission of defeat; I couldn’t sit there not writing while everyone around me flourished Hebrew across paper. So, I made it up instead. I drew elaborate squiggles across the pages, in beautiful colours, hoping that they would magically transform themselves into legible Hebrew, thinking I could hand them in, and no-one would really know.
And then, the answers. And then, the horror.
“As we announce each word, hold up your answer sheet for everyone to see. Bicycle. אופניים”
The other contestants proudly held their answers aloft. I reluctantly raised my fraudulent scribbles.
I could hear the titters from the audience, growing as the answers were revealed and I turned over yet another page of nonsense. One boy—who I had a mild crush on—was nudging his neighbour, pointing at me. And laughing.
“Ice cream. גלידה”
The humiliation, and the echoing laughter, dragged on and on.
Of course I scored a big, fat, well-deserved zero. It was enough to cost me the prize. It was enough to fray my relationship with Judaism a little further. It was enough to instil a fear of the spotlight that’s still with me to this day. But was it enough to sour my love of pub quizzes? Not even a little bit. I’m good at quizzes (unless they have a Hebrew round).
* “Gazpacho soup.” You’re welcome.
** Later, when the answer is indeed announced as Dave Grohl, you will cheer, vindicated, until your teammates shamefacedly confess that they changed the answer back to Alanis Morissette while you were in the loo. You will tell them that’s OK, while secretly wishing painful monkey-based death upon them all.