In the last of our LGBT+ Bagel Bites, I’m joined by Alfie Ferguson. We go off topic a little bit, but that OK. This is one story of one person and a story I’d never heard before. Hope you enjoy
Hayden Cohen 0:00
Hello and welcome to the Bagel Bite with me Hayden Cohen. This episode is with Alfie Ferguson who, is not an advocate or a worker for an LGBT+ charity, but instead is just one person telling one story providing a perspective, I certainly had not heard. Before I hit play on it. A couple of things. This conversation is friendly, but also raw. I could have quite easily edited out any awkwardness but this whole thing is about leaning into the awkwardness and pushing past it. This bite is also not completely LGBT+ focused in content and is the last in our LGBT+ series for the moment anyway. Just one last thing. This was recorded at Limmud Festival prior to my interview with Dalia Fleming of Keshet. In case you’re wondering about the chronology of the whole thing. The next episode will be fully fledged and have lots of vegan content, but we’ll try not to be too hippy. Enjoy Baglers.
Hayden Cohen 0:53
Thank you for joining me. I was told that you had an interesting story to tell. And at the bagel. I’m kind of interested in hearing interesting stories,
Alfie Ferguson 1:01
I mean, thanks for let me come on Hayden. We’ve met like five minutes ago, really? And you said you wanted to hear interesting stories. I think it’s just another story within the Jewish community. I don’t think this is interesting. It’s just adds to the flavor that we already have in our community. Really?
Hayden Cohen 1:16
Okay. Yeah, fair enough. So how has your journey led you to this point?
Hayden Cohen 1:20
Again, very personal as a black Jew. Now, it was I was very, very aware of my family’s background and my family background is that we are my mother and my father, both from the West Indies and we have very English British sounding names. Our family are Christians. My family’s background is Christians, Catholics. And before even having a lot of knowledge of that you you grow up and you know, you have an affiliation, you have a feeling for something, you trust your instincts. And, obviously you have your First Holy Communion, confession and you’re supposed to become confirmed within the Catholic faith, which I think was at 13 something like 12 or 13. And it wasn’t for me, I I realised very early on, I didn’t believe in the Catholic faith. I wasn’t interested and I firmly said, No.
Hayden Cohen 2:05
Out of interest, was that to everything? Did you reject all of it? Or do you say, there’s these things that I don’t particularly like? And I find another way….?
Hayden Cohen 2:15
As a young adult, you know, as well as I do, you go where your parents tell you to do. They give you the path that they have been given and they think is the right thing for you.
Hayden Cohen 2:22
Alfie Ferguson 2:23
And as as you get older, you come up with your own ideas, and I went to church religiously. We went every Sunday. We had Sunday school. You obviously had lessons leading up to your confirmation and it didn’t make any sense to me. I didn’t feel it. I feel that you’re supposed to feel something when you come out of somewhere that’s supposed to be religious. You’re supposed to feel something whether it’s anger, disappointment, whatever, and I did, it just didn’t do anything for me. So
Hayden Cohen 2:48
It’s actually really I’ve had this conversation with rabbis over the years myself, right. And they’ve There’s kind of Jewish concept where they say ‘Don’t Think, Do’. It’s this weird thing where they say, ‘you know, just do the stuff’. And then the actual, the thinking, the thinking part of it will come later. Interesting.
Alfie Ferguson 3:07
I mean I’m sure that’s very true for you but it’s not true for me. I did what I was supposed to do. And I don’t believe in doing things that don’t do anything for me. And if I don’t believe it’s the right path for me, I will just jump off the boat and find the nearest other little life raft they’ll take me somewhere else that I want to go.
Ronni Bloch 3:26
Alfie Ferguson 3:26
I’m you’re speaking your truth and I’m not speaking mine.
Hayden Cohen 3:28
Alfie Ferguson 3:29
See, So it’sThe only way I can describe mate (laughs) , It’s the only way I can describe it.
Hayden Cohen 3:31
(laughs) ok, so so that happens. He went, yeah, Catholicism, not for you?
Alfie Ferguson 3:36
Hayden Cohen 3:36
Alfie Ferguson 3:37
Absolutely nothing. Because I was at school. You’re doing your thing. Yeah. You’re growing up as a, you know, you’re growing up, there was nothing. There was absolutely nothing. What did happen was, I started spending a lot more time researching black history, particularly to do with slavery, particularly to do with the West Indies, and the island that my parents come from, which is Grenada. And I suppose this is where the flip starts coming in. Assimilation is a big word in the Jewish community. And it’s a big word for me. My family and my ancestors who I do respect because if they hadn’t done what they needed to do, my mom and dad, my grandparents, my extended family, myself, we would not be here. But let’s be frank, we all know what happened. You assimilate to what your overbearers do. You talk the language that they do to make sure they see you more as a human rather than an animal and a beast of burden? You take on their religion again to show you’re more human and you’re taking on their values, even though they still think you’re an animal. And assimulation from from what I can tell from my, from my perspective, I’m sure my mum and dad might disagree because they are children of the Empire. We do have discussions we don’t all see eye to eye but for me, the reason why my family’s Catholic the reason why we speak English, the reason why we all have British surnames is because of slavery. And I will not have that. I make my choice about my religion. I make my choice about who I pray to, if I pray to, what is going to be coming into my realm, and for me, I mean, I haven’t taken up an African name. Don’t get me wrong, And maybe that’s something that might happen in the future, but to take on the religion of the your overbearers and to continue it. And the only reason why generations of my family are Catholic is because if they didn’t assimilate, they would not have survived. It’s that simple, slaves did not survive unless you took some of the identity of your overbearers. That’s very much how I look at it. I’m going to be frank, my mom and dad wouldn’t kind of agree. Because they come, you know, from a different era, different priorities, survival is much bigger of a thing for them than it was for me. You know, my dad did believe in a wooden shack, basically, he’s done very well for where he is. So you’re not gonna be upset about how you got better in life. But for me as a as someone who’s born in Britain, don’t get me wrong. I’m, I’m in the land of where all that money got taken to. And I do feel like I should have a right to that. But it just wasn’t for me, and I decided I wanted a different path.
Hayden Cohen 5:56
Hayden Cohen 5:57
Why Judaism? Um– There’s extra things. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am fully aware. I’m going to get some comments which is you’re reacting to your last religion, but Catholicism, Christianity as a whole. I’m very confused by having a Jesus Christ that looks blond haired, blue eyed and like came out of Sweden. I don’t understand it. If you add to the slave narrative, you break a people, you you break their culture, you break their language, you break their traditions. And you insert Christianity, you put the image of a God who looks like your overbearers, it helps with the mindwashing In my opinion, again, my mom and dad would disagree with that. But uh..
Hayden Cohen 6:37
But how do you have this conversation? Well, you know,
Alfie Ferguson 6:39
I had this conversation with my father, I can’t happen with my mother. And she’s never going to hear this podcast, which is why we can talk so frankly, about this
Hayden Cohen 6:45
Alfie Ferguson 6:46
So, but my father, my father could could handle it. He could, he could see where I was coming from. My mother, you know, we all know women are the bearers of passing on culture between in families. Especially in Jewish families, especially in Greek families. In most ethnic minority families, it’s women that pass on the culture. So she’s not happy. She’s not gonna kick me out the house of the Eternal, she would prefer as a Catholic,
Hayden Cohen 7:08
Alfie Ferguson 7:08
It’s not gonna happen.
Hayden Cohen 7:09
So does your family, can they separate? Or do they separate out the culture from the religion? Or is it now merged for them?
Hayden Cohen 7:17
I think I think you know, what, I’m in a different age to them. Though my parents I believe, had a better education than me because of the kind of teachers that had. you got, remember, you were in the West Indies. British people couldn’t wait to go to the West Indies on a journey so that some of the best teachers the best minds went all over the Empire to teach ‘the savages’. I’m gonna just put it like that.
Hayden Cohen 7:37
Let’s clarify. For the listeners. There was air quotes.
Alfie Ferguson 7:40
Hayden Cohen 7:40
for the savages. This is (laughs)
Hayden Cohen 7:40
(laughs) Yeah, I do not believe my race is a savage. I’m just trying to say we’re trying to be a bit a bit provocative. I think Hayden knows where I’m coming from. When they say the sun never set on the Empire. That’s exactly what happened. All those people who lived in the Empire, who were technically slaves, who then went on to be participants in the Commonwealth. They are taught to think as a Brit. You’re taught to take the religion of those people you’re taught, and you know, those things are very hard to break.
Hayden Cohen 8:08
Alfie Ferguson 8:08
Very hard to break. I mean, I don’t need to spell it out, you know, you understand what I’m saying. I’m sure your listeners will understand.
Hayden Cohen 8:13
Yeah, he’s answered. My question is that you know that there’s lots of religions out there, right?
Hayden Cohen 8:19
Yeah, of course, So the image of God, the image of God in Christianity is a blond haired, blue eyed man, I am not doing that. And what’s the big thing about Judaism? Where’s your image of God? Where’s the image of God? There is no image. The image of God is us.
Hayden Cohen 8:35
believers in Islam either?
Hayden Cohen 8:38
I’ve never I’ve never researched Islam to be honest, essentially.
Hayden Cohen 8:40
Alfie Ferguson 8:41
never. Never. Never. I mean, maybe there’s something in the back of your head that says Judaism before Christianity. Maybe that’s you know, you can’t undo everything in your head. Maybe that’s a possibility. I never bothered looking at Islam
Hayden Cohen 8:52
at all. There’s no no depictions of God in Islam either
Alfie Ferguson 8:55
you might well be right, but i don’t know about it cuz I never ever researched it.
Hayden Cohen 8:58
Alfie Ferguson 8:59
Hands up, hands up
Hayden Cohen 9:00
So what was it? What, Was there someone of that came into your life that was kind of that attracted you to?
Alfie Ferguson 9:07
I knew some Jewish people who I was quite impressed with. I was also impressed with some of the principles. Let me say there’s, there’s things that I thought about Judaism before I started and that maybe now I’m here living living the dream
Hayden Cohen 9:22
Alfie Ferguson 9:22
As a Jew (laughs), I may not have exactly the same ideas, but at the time…
Hayden Cohen 9:27
Can I can I yeah,I really want to. Can we try and unpick that? So what what was it? What did you What was your perception before? that you then realise afterwards?
Alfie Ferguson 9:37
The perception was, that I couldn’t be a Jew. That was the biggest perception because I didn’t see any black people who were Jewish at all. Don’t get me wrong, if I paid more attention to America would have seen much more examples. But in Britain, I didn’t see those examples. And for what for whatever reason,
Hayden Cohen 9:51
I think it’s fair to say there are plenty of black Jews but but it’s still a minority of the Jewish community are black there’s not
Alfie Ferguson 9:58
You’re right, but you know what black people don’t pay attention to other black people. And I didn’t know anything about black Judaism and in Britain right now, I don’t think there’s a huge amount of knowledge about black Jews within the black community. And that’s unusual. Black people know about other black people. But we don’t know about black Jews. Maybe now. I mean, I’m on the black Facebook pages. And now I’m proudly saying I’m a black Jew in various conversations on websites. But like I said, you take an interest in who you are
Hayden Cohen 10:25
Alfie Ferguson 10:26
I didn’t know anything, once I went on to the American sites everywhere, everywhere. But I imagine there’s a much bigger black Jewish community out there than there is over here. The thing that was, I’m going to say sexy, which I know maybe some of your podcast listeners won’t like but what’s sexy is that the autonomy is very attractive to me. You get to study, you get to make up your mind. You can say I think that’s a load of rubbish. You can say, Joe,
Hayden Cohen 10:51
To the Rabbi.
Alfie Ferguson 10:52
This is the thing. I don’t have to take somebody’s perspective and say that if you can we all know you can take three different texts, right? And you sit there you study it, you research it, you get your your humash out. Yeah, you go through all the lyrics, whatever and you’re going well, here’s here’s one of the things I remember when going into Jewish spaces and the lyric about I am thankful that I’m not born a slave. Can I tell you how powerful that is? For me? I know it’s powerful for most Jews because of the story of emancipation from Egypt. But for me as a descendant of a slave, do you know how powerful that is? That
Hayden Cohen 11:26
No I can’t.
Alfie Ferguson 11:27
Yeah, what I’m telling you, I’m telling you. That’s what I’m here for. I’m telling you how powerful a statement is. I am thankful that I’m not born a slave. I’m thankful to my ancestors who allowed me to not be a born a slave. It’s very, very moving to me. Other things I like is I didn’t realise before I started, how much community there is. Don’t get me wrong, nothing wrong. Sometimes you run into it, and then sometimes you want to run back (laughs) out of it, right? But I didn’t know what this community was about. And I find it comforting. I find it annoying. I find It’s a little bit overwhelming because this community isn’t just based in Britain. It’s not just based at my shul. It’s not just based in Europe, it’s worldwide. You go somewhere and you mentioned you’re Jewish and other people come up to you. And they say hello I’m a Jew too. It’s like a it’s like an automatic little key to other people who have a little key as well just that just opens you up to other people and you’ve got that connection. I could go on I could bore your listeners with and they’d be sitting there going What on earth are you going on about? I can’t, I don’t want to go shul I don’t want to meet anybody. And I’m just like, buzzing about half of this stuff.
Hayden Cohen 12:34
Right. I mean, is it because you’re not used to it yet? Do you know what I mean?
Alfie Ferguson 12:38
Yeah, there’s no doubt I’ve heard of it. I’ve been told. The uh what? was what was it? The zeal of the Convert, is something I’ve often said. We’re just gonna have to wait and see I’m like three, four years in now.
Hayden Cohen 12:49
Alfie Ferguson 12:49
I don’t know mate have to come see me in seven or eight years, 10 years if we know each other. Have another podcast. Let’s see. I might not go shul. I might not you know, I might not be doing anything. But at the moment, I’m just talking about where I’m at.
Hayden Cohen 13:01
Alfie Ferguson 13:01
I can’t, I can’t I can’t say anything else. Yeah, I can’t say anything else.
Hayden Cohen 13:07
It’s gonna get into the other kind of layers of stuff here. I’m aware that you don’t identify as cisgender. Is that correct?
Hayden Cohen 13:14
I would say, I push non binary, non binary.
Hayden Cohen 13:18
Non binary. Okay, so I asked two questions. One, what does that mean by non binary? I’m just asking that to be open. So what does that mean in terms of non binary? And how does that interact with your Judaism?
Alfie Ferguson 13:28
It majorly interacts with my Judaism because everybody knows that Judaism is gendered based. One of the things I wasn’t quite aware of when I started my conversion process. I remember I’m going a little bit off track, but when I was doing my name for my conversion, I couldn’t have the name I wanted because it was male. And I was told I was advised that it wasn’t a good idea, and I should change it because I didn’t realise how important was gendered but you know, everything that you do within Judaism, if you’re from an Orthodox perspective is gendered. I would say I’m now part of Judaism where that it doesn’t matter so much now because that’s important to me. I don’t fit into a typical, you can look at me right now. And you wouldn’t say, Oh, what a lovely looking typical woman. I was born female. But I think I have characteristics of both male and female for definite, I think I would think you would call me a butch looking woman, which is a woman who has definite characteristic traits that are considered to be masculine.
Hayden Cohen 14:22
So I’ve learnt not to make those assumptions I’ve learned, I’ve learned. And I think that that is fair to say, I’ve learned, you know, over the years, because I’ve met people from a range of backgrounds.
Alfie Ferguson 14:36
Hayden, I’m really happy that you said that because it’s really important that people know it’s okay to be wrong at the beginning. It’s okay to ask a question. It’s almost like it’s okay to listen to the answer and then to act on it. And that’s fantastic. I judged you very, very quickly. Then I judged you there. And I’ve been slapped down but because you’re saying the right things, you’re doing the right things. Asking is always the best thing because I tell you now you asked five different people. What’s going on? Five people are telling you five different answers and you You must is always about letting the other person lead you to who their identity is. They’ll always they’ll always lead you. And then you just got to go with it. And you obviously have you obviously have and I prejudged you.
Hayden Cohen 15:12
Well. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to launch this podcast, right? I just liked hearing from different people. And you know, we’re living in a world now that seems like we getting increasingly divided, and antagonistic.
Alfie Ferguson 15:30
There’s money behind the media mate. (laughs) You know, if you can get one stream of people to like one thing and you’re going to show a programmes to set up programmes that go down that line, you’re going to do that. For all the faults that the BBC has, one thing it does, it shows a multitude of different types of viewpoints and that we’re losing that a little bit with the fact we’ve got the internet now. We can watch what we want them to have to watch anything that we don’t like anymore. It is making a little bit more fractured in the world. There’s no doubt
Hayden Cohen 15:52
Yeah, you’re right. You’re right.
Alfie Ferguson 15:53
There’s no doubt about it.
Hayden Cohen 15:54
About about Yeah, so hopefully, I’m just doing the little thing I found so cool.
Alfie Ferguson 15:58
Of course, of course.
Hayden Cohen 15:59
So cool. So How’d you get over that then? So in terms of this whole, male/ female paradigm, yeah, that there is
Alfie Ferguson 16:08
I ignore it and do what the hell I want. It’s very simple. I tend to find that when I’m interacting with other people, they are right for you or they’re wrong for you. And they’ll show you very quickly if they’re wrong for you. And they’ll show you very quickly whether they’re right for you. There was a day when I was much, much younger, where you and I’m sure a lot of your podcast listeners have exactly the same experience. Where you wanted it to be liked by everybody and and to do what everybody else did. Now, I don’t do that. You either like me or you don’t. If you don’t like` me, I’ll do my thing. I’ll be polite. I’ll say hello, but we won’t go much further I don’t have the energy to spend on those kind of people. And, and, and being honest. On the flip side, they should be spending time with me. If I’m somebody they don’t get on with let’s let’s let’s just call the whole thing off.Hey? Give each other a bit of space and we do our thing. You know, I’ve got some very good friends. You know, I’ve got that base for me. I’m very lucky that the Jewish community that I have, the friends I have, anyway, I mean, you know, I’m very lucky. I have a good base, I don’t have to put up with people that I don’t like.
Hayden Cohen 17:03
Right, right. So. So that’s interesting. So would you say that advocacy is not part of what you want to do?
Alfie Ferguson 17:10
I have to be honest, I think there’s other people who are better than me about advocacy. I think there’s a pa???
Hayden Cohen 17:16
Alfie Ferguson 17:16
I tell you why, because um, I Hayden probably would like to be as somebody who allows other people to speak their stories. I think that would be far more interesting for me. I think advocacy is something that you have to work on a very, very long term vision to get where you want to. I think your networking skills, your communication skills, have to be on point. You need to have a process that you work through. You have to make very good connections. And you know, I’m just a little bod that runs around in the Jewish world. I don’t have a really real connections. I make friends with the people I know, I’m not high level anything. I think when you want to do advocacy, I would want to do advocacy that changed something on a big thing or something like Keshet. I’m more, I’m so impressed by Keshet they’re leading the way I forgotten her name now. I think the name is Dalia. She’s such an inspiration to the Jewish LGBT+ commmunity. It’s not what I would do. It’s not what I would, I would want to know, it’s not. I mean, I hope my little bit of advocacy on this podcast would would help.
Hayden Cohen 18:13
Alfie Ferguson 18:14
But that’s as far as I would like to go. I wouldn’t like to be in meetings and having to draw up plans and things like that. Is this not where we’d be like, I’m, I’m spontaneous. I met you five minutes ago. I’m on your podcast.
Hayden Cohen 18:23
Alfie Ferguson 18:23
That’s, that’s the kind of way I roll. I just I just like (to).
Hayden Cohen 18:26
(Laughs). I think you roll with it. Advocacy takes multiple forms, and you’re doing a form of it. Why not?
Alfie Ferguson 18:32
Okay. Extra brownie points for Hayden. I like that. But I still don’t want to do anything. You know, the big stuff is not for me. I don’t have the patience for the long haul, nitty gritty, incremental ways of going forward. I don’t have the patience. What I’m good at is being dropped into a situation and seeing if I can fly this. This podcast may come and bite me. This podcast may be a really good thing for me. I don’t know but that that’s, you know, that’s how I rock and roll. Advocacy, You might be right I might be making I might be doing advocacy with the people that I meet maybe some of the people that listen to this podcast, but if you’re talking about things like Keshet like again, I’m gonna brag about them because they’re fantastic.
Hayden Cohen 19:08
I’m hopefully getting them on as well. Yeah
Alfie Ferguson 19:09
Hayden Cohen 19:10
Alfie Ferguson 19:10
That’s just not what I’m interested in, or there’s better people out there than me who can who can do all those things.
Hayden Cohen 19:16
Right. So So what what’s what’s your driving force? What do you kind of do you think in terms of I want a legacy in this is it or do you be?
Alfie Ferguson 19:25
Yeah, I mean, do I want a legacy? I think everybody wants a legacy. The legacy will be that was an okay person. And I was a bit of a laugh to be with and not a complete pain in the arse.
Hayden Cohen 19:34
Why not be a pain in the arse? What’s wrong with that?
Alfie Ferguson 19:36
I’m be a pain in the arsess about some thing. But I haven’t got anything to be you know, I’m kind of in a good place. I’m Jewish. Like I wanna be. I have good friends, my family all still with me. I have a nephew. I have a sisters. I you know, my life’s kind of okay. I’m at Limmud. I’m at my first Limmud. Am I you know, I’m onI mean, you know on any podcast the podcast. You know, days are good. Days are good. I mean…..
Hayden Cohen 19:57
You’re not on any podcast. You’re on The Bagel Podcast, I mean.
Alfie Ferguson 19:59
You’re right, you’re right. I’m not bigging it up as much as I should. The Bagel Podcast is the only Jewish podcast that you should be listening to. Thank you very much and endorsed by me.
Hayden Cohen 20:09
I’m going to package that and then I’ll just
Alfie Ferguson 20:12
Just loop it, just loop it.
Hayden Cohen 20:14
(laughs) Great. Thank you so much for your time.
Alfie Ferguson 20:16
Hayden, thank you very much.
Hayden Cohen 20:18
Thanks to Alfie Ferguson. And that is the last in our LGBT+ series of Bagel Bites. Tune in next time when we’ll be discussing vegan stuff — a panel recorded at the opening of the Jewish Vegan Center, a discussion about the transition of power with the Jewish Volunteering Network, Talmud for Schmeryls’, Israel talk, lots of different things coming up. Until next time.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai with additional editing by Ronni Bloch
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