On Smiling and on Adjectives

I posted this on Facebook today:

How do I know it’s Chanukah? Because a child has stood in my little corridor, looking at the door of the linen cupboard very intently. As soon as I make myself known, I am asked “May I open the door?”

“No,” I say. ” You will be disappointed if you open the door. Look what the sign says ‘Narnia is not behind this door.'”

One of the less-talked-about differences between being part of an accepted majority culture and of being of a minority one (whether accepted or not accepted, safe or not safe) is that we all have shared jokes and winces with majority culture folks. Think about how deep Christmas resonances are from now. In fact, from two weeks ago. Think now of how few and very limited the resonances are for Chanukah… if you’re in the US. If you’re in Australia they’re fewer and mostly private. There isn’t a broad shared Jewish culture of any kind in Australia that is not mediated by Christian mainstream culture.

What this means in terms of our everyday is that we have to build those resonances, one step at a time. For me, my resonances for Chanukah include inviting children over and making latkes with them, teaching them how to invent their own rules for dredel (because that’s what my family did when we were young) and so forth. But they also experience my flat in a different way to other visits. Because Chanukah is so enmeshed with experience and fun, they look at things and see things and want to ask questions.

I put that sign on my linen cupboard years ago. I’ve influenced it in my fiction. I’ve told people about it. And yet, even with children who have visited before and know things very well, when they reach a certain age (about Lucy’s age, actually, when she first goes through a door into Narnia) they see that sign on the door and ask the question.

This year A (the child in question) snuck back later and checked out the cupboard. If he tells his family about it and it comes back to me, the question will be whether it is always a linen cupboard. This is what happened when his older sister tried the door a few years ago. His little sister is reading Harry Potter for the first time by herself, so she will have Opinions. It will become a part of “What happens at Gillian’s every Chanukah.” Because he checked it alone, I couldn’t pose that question. They are all asking each other, now, “Did you see the sign? Did you open the door?” The interactions after that and with me are always different, but they’ve become a normal and wonderful part of Chanukah.

Some of the cool things we do because we’re not surrounded by people who do the things we do can be very special. The relationship my adopted nieces and nephews have with this single door is one of the most special of all. It fits in nicely with a chat I had with other friends, later that night. None of the tidy and often accusatory label that are thrown my way fit me at all. I am not, as some of my students used to explain, an adjective: I am a human being. That notice on that door is one of the bits of my life that proclaims this. Anyone who doesn’t see the notice or dream about it at all, is missing some of the best parts of my life.

Another discussion we all have every year is why the spelling of a single word can vary so much. And another, a more adult one, is why the politics of a particular bit of land were so fraught just before 167 BCE. No-one asked why I always tangle the Hasmoneans with their predecessors, which is simply because I am dreadful at names.

Complexity is I herent in Jewish life. These small things are the everyday complexity, like not being able to safely wear anything in public that indicates I’m Jewish. The questions of children and the passionate argument about spelling are so much better than some of the ways we are told to be and to think as Jews.

This coming year, when anyone tells me who I am and what I think because they know so much more about my Jewish self than I could possibly do, I shall think of my honorary nephew, standing outside that cupboard door and wondering if it really could lead to Narnia. And I shall smile with the happy memory. And anyone who genuinely thinks of me as an adjective and not a person will see that smile and be unsettled. My smile will be like that sign on the door. It might lead where the unsettled person thinks, but …

Winter Is Coming – Gillian Polack


I’m Gillian, and I’ll be blogging about things that are everyday to me. I’ll change the title whenever I feel it needs changing, and I’ll put my name up top so that you know it’s me, playing with titles. I love playing with titles. My current draft novel is up to its sixth. I also like writing letters. This will be my letter to you.

I discovered (the peculiar way) that the combination of all the things in my life mean that my life is a bit different. I live in Australia (my family migrated here between the 1850s and 1920) and have had an exceptionally strange career. I’m not certain what my everyday is different to, not yet. We’ll explore that together.

Take my Sunday. You don’t have to take it very far, because I’m writing this on Sunday afternoon. Right now I’m downloading the Hugo packet for the WorldCon in New Zealand. I was so happy about going to a place a mere six hours travel from home and spending time with friends and… COVID-19 hit. At least I’ll have more time for reading my Hugo awards packet.

My corner of Australia (the national capital) has bad internet. This means that it has taken me 8 hours to download the Hugo packet. I live in deep commune with my computer. It thinks it’s my life partner and plays games with me. I think I need to get a new one. My computer is proud of the duct tape holding it together. Actually, it might be masking tape. It’s an old, grumpy computer. Continue reading “Winter Is Coming – Gillian Polack”