When I went to work in America, I discovered that I was exotic. A Jew from Scotland? How did your family get there? By which I think was meant: And how come they didn’t leave? In fact, 9 of 10 siblings did leave, and only one, my grandmother, stayed behind. And if that isn’t the start of a Yiddish folktale, I don’t know what is.
20 years ago, when this picture was taken, I was just one Scottish Jew among thousands of others. In this particular photo, I was among Hannah and Nadia, lets call them, with whom I’d soon be having a joint bat-mitzvah.
That it was to be a headshot doesn’t explain why we decided to wear no trousers. In London, 12 year old girls of the time were smoking, drinking and having sex, or at least hanging round the bagel shops of Golders Green, flirting and flicking their hair. In Glasgow, in what now looks like quite an acute case of arrested development, we were laughing our heads off in my lounge in spotted socks and underpants.
The bare legs were neither nor there, obviously not making it into the final photo. What was sartorially significant were the earrings: my decision that I would come of age wearing a pair of dangly silver treble clefs.
I came downstairs with them in, knowing I was chancing it. Knowing that as soon as my mum saw them, the inevitable pronouncement would be made.
They were “baitzki-ish”.
Now, the etymology of this word is obscure. It’s a Yiddish word of which no Yiddishist has ever heard. It appears in no dictionary. But in Glasgow, “baitzki”, the masculine “baitz” and the plural “baitzimir” is pure mameloshn.
What does it mean?
Common. Tacky. Things Jews don’t do. Things we don’t do. Things I don’t want you to do. Things that are simply and indefinably and for all time “nisht undzere”.
Remember the Susan Sontag essay “Notes on Camp”? Things simply were, or were not? Well, it’s the same with baitz. Like camp, it is a matter of taste.
And it can get pretty granular. Here’s the last thing my mum told me was “baitzki-ish”. You know the little loop stitched into the inside collar of a coat that lets you hang the coat from a peg? Well, to allow one end of that loop to become unstitched from the coat, so it hangs loose and you can no longer hang the coat up ‘nicely’? Baitzki-ish.
So back in ’92, I hadn’t even got the bottom of the stairs when the “B” word got slapped on the Bat Mitzvah earrings. We fought. I defied. I wore the earrings, they made it into the headshot and like so many totemic things of adolescence, delivered neither on the promise (that they would change my life for the better) nor the threat (that I would always regret allowing myself to be frozen in time looking a baitzki).
And that was my Bat Mitzvah. A Jewish ritual, like all the others, dominated by fights about fashion.
Post-bat mitzvah, Hannah and Nadia and I drifted. They remained close but after school we all moved away and I didn’t see them again for years. When I did, we were in our late twenties, back in Glasgow for a school friend’s wedding. Lets call her Avital. Hannah and Nadia both had husbands. I was single and went alone. There was also a question mark over my sexuality as rumours on the subject had wafted North and seemed to lend me a malodorous air. (I don’t think being gay could be baitzki-ish – it was so foreign as to defy classification).
At the ceremony, Hannah and Nadia ignored me. After, in the ultimate bitchy high school move, they roared off to the reception in town, yelling out the window “there’s no more room in the car”.
So much for my Bat Mitzvah. A headshot with two stock characters from a teen movie.
Last summer, I got married to another Jewess, a wee English one named Poppy. Once again, news drifted north. To my surprise, Nadia and Hannah both sent me sincere and lovely mazeltovs.
I sent them back this photo. This led to an outbreak of utter hilarity and nostalgia. We reminisced about the crap presents. The vanity cases and the sewing boxes. The old auntie who had told us to “dance at our weddings” even though we were only 12. They had forgotten the bare legs but remembered the treble clef earrings. None of us mentioned Avital’s wedding.
All three of us have held onto our Jewishness, I think in spite of our Bat Mitzvah, rather than because of it.
We may not have come of age into a religion, but we did into a community. We belong to each other still, me and Hannah and Nadia and all of us who grew up there. That’s ours, whether we like it or not. And through the rose-tinted prism reserved for those hypocrites among us who would rather chew off their own arm than actually go back and live there, I do like it. In fact, I love it.
We have a Jewish tartan. Kosher haggis is served at Burns suppers. We drink Irn Bru with our Sunday bagels. But as the city’s slogan says: “People make Glasgow”.
Glasgow is down to its last four shuls now (one to pray in, the others not to be seen dead in). The Jewish primary school is filled with local Muslim kids as there are no longer enough Jewish ones. Someone called Mohammed recently won the Torah prize.
Exotic. Not at all. Extinct? Not yet and maybe not ever. Mine? Til a’ the seas gang dry.
Nicole Taylor is a screenwriter (Secret Diary of a Call Girl, The Hour) based in London.