Charlotte Nichols has been the MP for Warrington North since December last year. Charlotte’s Jewish, and for Jewish people this is a significant time of the year, the Omer, which is the counting of the days from Pesach, the festival of freedom, to Shavuot, the festival of revelation.
On Shavuot, the story of Ruth, the archetypal Jew who became Jewish later in life is read; and this reflects Charlotte’s own experience as a Jew by choice. In the spirit of the season, therefore, Charlotte had a natter with Wrenna of the Social Review – who is also travelling a similar path at the moment – over WhatsApp about faith, politics, her own journey in both: and, of course, the most punk rock thing she’s ever done.
Wrenna: Hi Charlotte! Wrenna here 🙂 Is the easiest thing if we just exchange Q&As here on WhatsApp and then I can write it up?
Charlotte: Whatever suits you really, it’s not like I’m going anywhere haha
Wrenna: Ha, yeah fair! So! Thanks for agreeing to talk.
Wrenna: Want to start with a question about conversion, then, given the season: what was the journey to your conversion like, and what were the factors that drew you to it?
Charlotte: It was actually a bit of a bolt from the blue!
I grew up in a secular Catholic family, in an area without many Jewish families – and I’m not even aware I met any Jewish people until university. History and R.E. at my school taught about Judaism in such a fleeting and superficial way that I left school without any real concept of it, and would have broadly identified myself as “culturally Catholic” but agnostic/atheist in world view and practice, and a lot of spiritual baggage haha!
I was watching something on TV with a joke where the punchline mentioned a “beit din” and it completely went over my head. I don’t even remember what it was or what the joke was, but I remember Googling it and reading the Wikipedia page about a Beit Din. Then you’ve clicked on a few more things and before you know it you’re hours into this kind of Wikipedia hole. The more I read about Judaism as a theology the more it just chimed with me in a way I really couldn’t explain.
For weeks I was just reading everything I could, online and from the library, about Jewish theology and practice, and then one day I kind of figured enough was enough. So I decided I’d go to a service to kind of knock this obsession on the head, and go back to reading about other things. I figured it would be like when I’d been dragged to Mass at various points in my life for family events, and felt no connection to it at all.
But then I went, and despite the fact I didn’t have a clue what was going on and it was predominantly in a language I don’t speak, I just left with the most amazing sense of peace (which for someone as tightly wound and anxious as I am is saying something). And so I kept going, and I found the weeks where I didn’t always felt longer and harder than the weeks where I did
Wrenna: wow that is! amazing how much commonality I feel with that.
Wrenna: So, next question: do your religious lives and your political lives intersect much, or are they fairly separate? Do you feel your politics is informed by your Jewishness, and if so, how?
Charlotte: I think they’re completely connected- many of the core tenets of my Judaism are what drives my politics, particularly around concepts like tikkun olam and the centrality of gemilut hasadim. Now obviously, in practical terms Judaism isn’t a missionary faith and only Jewish people are obligated to keep the mitzvot so it’s not about trying to impose my world view or practices on others who don’t share my beliefs – I’m very clear on that distinction when it comes to policy making.
But to me, Judaism is about sanctifying life on earth rather than securing a reward in a world to come, and that kind of… time pressure of this mortal life where waking up tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, really focuses me on trying to get the kind of big changes that we really need to see as a society to make it work better for everyone.
Wrenna: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense: very much trying to bring that spark of divine change into the world, and living that out?
Charlotte: Yeah exactly. I think it also has made me connect with others much more deeply than I used to, as you can envisage that spark of the divine in everyone. Particularly when it comes to things around interfaith and community work, that sense of connection is so important and trying to find common ground with others.
Wrenna: I know you’ve spoken recently about the importance of social care and of course that very much is in line with that ethos of gemilut hasidim. What do you see the future of social care in this country as being? Do you think there are Jewish lessons to be learned here too?
Charlotte: For sure. I have a friend who refers to Moses as ‘the first shop steward’ and indeed there’s a lot we can learn from Torah and later Jewish thought on collective bargaining, worker’s rights and our social contract with one another that is incredibly relevant today as despite the incredible contribution made by our care workers, they are among the most poorly paid and poorly treated groups within our workforce. It’s also interesting how increasingly services like social care and the NHS are being looked at like charity, rather than part of our social contract and I think there’s a lot of interesting thought around tzedekah that’s really relevant here too. Fundamentally, I think social care in this country has to be brought into a national care service that sits alongside the NHS, and which has the dignity and quality of life of those receiving care as it’s core purpose rather than the profit motive. I don’t see how it can be sustained in its current form in either a practical or a moral sense.
Wrenna: That makes a lot of sense. You mention some interesting thoughts about tzedekah that you think applies here: could you expand or recommend somewhere to read more?
Charlotte: Trying to think of a good way to boil it down but like:
Tzedekah is typically translated as “charity” but it’s a deeper concept than that, coming from the same root as “tzedek” (justice)- so it can be understood as something more akin to righteousness or social responsibility, rather than charitable giving. There’s some philosophical thought around altruism and philanthropy as something that serves the individual and implies a potentially problematic power relationship between the benefactor and the recipient who is reliant on their continued goodwill. Our elderly and vulnerable should not rely on that ‘goodwill’ of individuals, but should be sustainably provided for by the state? If that makes sense?
Wrenna: That does make sense! Thank you.
Wrenna: Changing tack slightly: which of the holidays is most meaningful to you personally? And how’s it been having to celebrate Pesach (and possibly/probably Shavuot) in lockdown: what’s your community doing to cope?
Charlotte: If you’d asked me the same question last year, I would probably have said Shavuot which I appreciate is very cliché as someone who converted into the community, but I think last Sukkot was one of the most profound celebrations for me last year and I found a real connection to it that had felt somewhat lacking in previous years for various reasons.
I had all these grand plans to build a sukkah from scratch, but got ill and the weather was absolutely atrocious and nothing really went to plan. But seeing how much it meant to me, some of my friends lovingly built me this really beautiful, structurally unsound sukkah largely in the dark and pissing down with rain, after the start of the chag. And while it wasn’t Kosher, watching it swaying in the wind really made me think about all the things that we build a sukkah to represent and I finally “got” it. Mine was more temporary than is customary, but it was enough. And sometimes in all the pressure we pile on ourselves in marking festivals ‘properly’ or trying to make new Jewish traditions for our families to make up for the ones we didn’t grow up with ourselves, it’s easy to kind of lose sight of that.
Wrenna: That’s a really great story!
Wrenna: And very meaningful.
Charlotte: Thank you 😊
Charlotte: Pesach was really difficult to mark alone, I’m used to a much more raucous communal event and, not for lack of trying, Zoom just can’t recreate that. It came just after my birthday this year, and I was due to be doing the Torah reading in synagogue which didn’t happen either, and there was just a flatness to the whole thing. I’m hoping Shavuot will be easier.
Wrenna: I hope so too. I guess a late night study session over Zoom might be a bit easier if you intend to do that!
Charlotte: Yeah I guess given the centrality of Pesach in the calendar, as something that even the most secular Jews I know who don’t do RH/YK [Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur] mark, it was always gonna be felt harder.
Charlotte: If nothing else I can totally gorge myself on cheesecake for Shavuot. And it won’t be miles different from other years 😂
Wrenna: I don’t like cheesecake, rip
Wrenna: (I think the holiday that has meant the most to me so far has been Yom Kippur, although I’m a glum and introspective thing so perhaps that isn’t surprising.)
Wrenna: So, how have you found being a Jewish MP and so in the public eye, but also being a Jew by choice?
Charlotte: It’s one of the first things trolls across the political spectrum go for when they’re trying to upset me, which is really difficult because it’s something that is so central and goes right to the heart of my sense of self. There’s this idea that I converted to achieve some sort of political end that implies a kind of flippancy about conversion that I think anyone with any understanding of how rigorous conversion knows just isn’t the case. When it comes from other Jewish people, it’s particularly hurtful because it plays to that insecurity of at what arbitrary point you’ll be Jewish ‘enough’ to talk about your experience of things like antisemitism without people throwing your conversion status in your face, and for some people the answer is ‘never’ which is a bitter pill to swallow.
That said I think my Judaism has really helped me in my role not least in providing a space for taking myself out of my own head a bit through prayer, reflection and in fulfilling certain practices, but the community of support both at home and in London (albeit experiencing this virtually with both communities at the moment). It’s also meant I’m finding a new richness to my interactions with other faith communities in the constituency I represent, by being able to share in marking celebrations with them and learning about the differences and similarities in our respective traditions.
Wrenna: How do you find practical things in the job of being an MP interact with wanting to, for instance, welcome in Shabbat on a Friday evening? There’s a lot of traveling back at the weekends in the job, right?
Wrenna: It’s not a “normal” job by any means, from what I can tell!
Charlotte: As a new MP, I’m still trying to get the work/life balance right. During the election period and the first few months of trying to hire staff, set up two offices, and buy a house, I was easily working 18 hour days every day just to keep my head above water, and spending half your week at one end of the country and the other half in the other complicates matters enormously in trying to establish any kind of routine.
Sometimes it’s just not possible to practice my faith the way I would in an ideal world, but generally though, wherever I am, I try to make sure to leave the office on a Friday by sundown and to light Shabbat candles if nothing else and not to put too much pressure on myself. Before lockdown, usually I’d travel back home on a Thursday, but if the House was sitting on a Friday (which is usually about once a month), I’d stay in London on the Friday evening to go to the Kabbalat Shabbat service at Westminster Synagogue.
The longer I’ve been in post though and being able to build a really talented and supportive team around me, the more I’m confident that I’ll get to a place where there doesn’t feel like there’s any kind of tension between being Jewish and being an MP. I’m just not there yet!
Wrenna: Very honest answer and I wish you well in finding a resolution to that tension!
Charlotte: I had near enough cracked it before Coronavirus messed everything again
Wrenna: Lol yeah I can imagine
Wrenna: What’s the one piece of advice that you’d give to yourself six years ago right now, about what the next six years will bring – in politics and in faith?
Charlotte: I think it would really be to just really lean into the fact that nothing is inevitable and everything is possible. Thinking about how much things have changed in that time in my own life and in the wider world, I wonder what the next six could possibly bring that would match up in seismicity.
Wrenna: Great! Ok, one more serious one, and then our “and finally”.
Charlotte: Haha okay!
Wrenna: You’re known for taking a robust and firm view when it comes to the subject of pushing back against fascists and their sympathisers. The far right remains a big problem, both at home and elsewhere. What do you think the best thing an ordinary person can do to resist its spread is?
Charlotte: I think the most important thing is to cut it off wherever you see it. A lot of young men, in particular, are being radicalised online in certain online communities into accepting far right talking points and ideas- whether it’s this kind of “edgelord” deliberately provocative stuff that hides behind saying it’s ironic, or where its framed as something that everyone thinks but just can’t say because of political correctness or free speech, or as something pseudo-scientific. It’s usually fairly easy to spot because those kinds of ideas will naturally spill over into conversation or other online discourse, but it shouldn’t be ignored or normalised. You’ll also sometimes see well-meaning friends or relatives sharing something that they’ve not checked the source of, or from a page with other more harmful content. Call it out. You can do so gently, it doesn’t need to be a confrontation, but don’t ignore it.
Wrenna: Awesome! Thank you.
Charlotte: Another thing that’s really easy to do but helps is to report abuse that you see to social media companies- most will have a way of flagging that kind of content. Stop it spreading any further.
Wrenna: Yeah that’s true – though I find Twitter’s categories for reporting are not always so clear.
Wrenna: Sometimes you see something that’s, say, obviously antisemitic but it’s hard expressing why.
Charlotte: Yeah for sure. And even the stuff that is explicitly so isn’t always against their rules, as I spend more time than I’d like finding out.
Wrenna: Ugh yeah. I’ve seen some bad stuff with Facebook with that recently. Do you think there’s a case for stronger regulation on such things?
Charlotte: Yeah definitely. Like, I found out recently Twitter won’t take down the profiles of convicted paedophiles!
Wrenna: Goodness. Even Facebook does that.
Charlotte: And they’re hot at taking down certain content that’s against the law in Germany but somehow can’t do it here. Clearly they can’t be left to regulate themselves
Wrenna: And finally – this is our “calling card” question and Morgan will have my guts if I don’t ask it – what’s the most punk rock thing you’ve ever done?
Charlotte: Oh man. The most punk rock thing I’ve ever done… let me have a think!
Wrenna: yes it’s always hard to think of.
Charlotte: What can I admit to that isn’t too “fields of wheat”? 😂
Charlotte: I recently received some post addressed to Cardinal Nichols. I feel like being the first woman, Jewish Cardinal would be quite punk rock…
Wrenna: excellent printable answer.
Wrenna: Thank you for your time!
Charlotte: Yeah of course! Thanks for your time too, it’s been really interesting, kind of like… working through some of my thoughts about these things with someone who gets it!