By Senske de Vries Before the thesis-period actually started I was somewhat hesitant about how this would be. I had heard from others that they hated working on their thesis. They described it as the worst part of their studies because it was very time-consuming and not fun to do. Even though I was quite excited about it, I kept thinking ‘the worst has yet to come’ throughout the whole process. But after having finished it, I am able to say that ‘the worst’ did not come.
I was lucky to choose my own topic, so I focused on experiences of Jewish identity. The majority of my interlocutors were very enthusiastic about the topic of my research and curious about what other people had told me. They told me a lot of personal stories, asked some questions to me too and therefore it felt like I was having conversations with people rather than interviewing them. The beautiful conversations about people’s experiences and traditions resulted in something I cherish and look back at positively. Yet, the topic is sensitive too, so the pain some people felt and talked about is something that touched me deeply. Take for example the person who told me about how his parents survived the Shoah and were traumatized for life. This also had a huge impact on him as their child. When this happened, I tried to comfort the person sitting in front of me, and at the same time I tried to process everything that was said as well as possible. After this interview, I was even more aware of the sensitivity of the topic and realized that – when having conversations like this – I needed the remainder of the day to process all the emotions that came to the surface.
Inevitably, there were some moments in which I was struggling with the things that I had not done before. How do you cope with someone who becomes emotional during the interview? What do you do when you cannot reach the person you have an interview with the next day? But also, what do you do when someone’s story touches you so deeply that afterwards, you do not know what to do with it? I found that one of the best ways to deal with those questions is to trust yourself in doing the ‘right’ thing by listening to your gut. Do not think too much about all the different things you can do; your first reaction is probably the best one. So, give someone a tissue, send them an email instead of a text, and reach out to someone to talk about how the interview touched you deeply. Talking about it with someone with whom you feel comfortable was very helpful to me. It made everything clear again.
“When I come home on Friday evenings, I always like it, then Anne has two breads […] with the Challah cover, yes I think that is lovely. […] It is really special and that is what I like. ‘Just search where it was written, do you have the wine?’, a bit of messing around the table”
In the field, I learned that the topic of my research was more than something that I ‘just’ had an interest for. I knew about my Jewish roots, but focusing on the topic of Jewish identity for such a long time made me realize that this interest was a very personal one too. When I saw the pain and the emotions of one of the interlocutors, it touched me very deeply – maybe because of my own family’s history. On top of that, being invited for Shabbat and having a lovely dinner with people I barely knew felt special to me. Probably because I never had a ‘real’ Shabbat dinner before and being welcomed with open arms, made me appreciate this moment even more.
“They [grandparents] fled from Iraq [to Israel], […] eventually this is the only thing that came with them from all the wealth so it means a lot to me. […] And a memory of my grandmother […] my grandmother was like a mother to me”.
Throughout the fieldwork period, I started to include symbols of Jewish identity in the research. These symbols were self-chosen objects by the interlocutors that symbolize (a part of) their Jewish identity. Asking the interlocutors about this brought an extra dimension to the conversations. It stimulated most of the interlocutors to tell more personal things than they did before we started talking about the object. I photographed these objects and, in this way, I wanted to show how there can be a meaning behind something other than the meaning we see from the outside. Most of the time there was a story behind the objects other than the ‘factual’ meaning that is often ascribed to it.
“It’s so natural to me that I don’t even have to give it a thought. I am who I am, when I enter a room, a Jewess comes in, there is no doubt about that […] I am so imbued with that Jewish identity, really every drop of blood in me”.
This period of my studies felt like the opposite of ‘the worst’. I think I can say that this was actually one of my favorites. I liked it to put everything that I learned during the previous two-and-a-half into practice and enjoyed researching a topic that is so close to my heart. However, similar to me, you might find yourself in situations you are not prepared for. When that happens, do not forget to listen to your gut! It will guide you on your way.
Senske de Vries is a third-year Anthropology bachelor student at the VU. All pictures in this blog are made by herself.