The Jew who stays out in the cold

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - Mon­ica Porter

I’VE BEEN re­flect­ing on the sub­ject of Jews who hide their Jewish­ness for fear of be­ing os­tracised, and won­der­ing whether this isn’t part of the prob­lem of Jews be­ing seen as the “peren­nial out­sider”. My ru­mi­na­tions were trig­gered by read­ing the mem­oirs of the writer Les­ley Blanch. Her hus­band was the famed French nov­el­ist and diplo­mat Romain Gary and Blanch re­lates how he con­fessed to her, shortly be­fore their wed­ding, that he was Jewish.

She re­calls: “I was not yet aware of just how heavy a load a Jewish her­itage could seem, how it could close round with sti­fling ten­ta­cles of emo­tion and even shame.” Ap­par­ently, Gary feared prej­u­dice against him from an­ti­semitic French­men, so he’d kept sh­tum about his Rus­sian-Jewish mother. He raged against the way she had filled out his ap­pli­ca­tion form to ob­tain French na­tion­al­ity: “She put it down in black and white! Re­li­gion: Jewish! Didn’t she re­alise what her pre­cious French felt about Jews? It would have been quite sim­ple to put Ortho­dox. Now I’m stuck with it, it’s on all my pa­pers, there’s no get­ting away from it.”

He need not have wor­ried, as he had a flour­ish­ing ca­reer but his Jewish ori­gins were none­the­less part of his life­long weltschmerz. He even­tu­ally com­mit­ted sui­cide.

I was re­minded how I only dis­cov­ered my own Jewish back­ground at the age of 22, back in the 1970s, when my fa­ther (a Protes­tant con­vert) told me his par­ents had in fact been Jewish. He, too, had thought it best not to bring this up, to pre-empt any po­ten­tial an­ti­semitism, both dur­ing our years in Amer­ica, and later here. When I asked him why he hadn’t told me sooner that I was halfJewish, he replied: “If I’d ever heard you make an an­ti­semitic re­mark, don’t worry, I would have told you.”

I was thrilled at dis­cov­er­ing this ad­di­tional and ex­otic layer to my back-story. It made me more in­ter­est­ing to my­self. And years later, in var­i­ous ar­ti­cles, I wrote about my half-Jewish­ness. By then, my fa­ther was no longer both­ered. He must have felt that times had changed and it wasn’t an is­sue.

The jour­nal­ist Christo­pher Hitchens had a some­what sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence to mine. He was 38 when he learned that his mother, who had killed her­self a year ear­lier, had been a clan­des­tine Jew. He later wrote of the rev­e­la­tion: “I was pleased to find that I was pleased”.

His mother had hid­den her Jewish­ness from her fam­ily, and re­port­edly de­clared to her hus­band when Christo­pher was a child: “If there is an up­per class in this coun­try, then Christo­pher is go­ing to be in it.”

As Hitchens re­marked in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy: “She en­sured that I never had to suf­fer any in­dig­nity or em­bar­rass­ment for be­ing a Jew”.

Clearly, the Jew-in-de­nial is a known quan­tity and it’s easy to un­der­stand why a sec­u­lar Jew in 1930s Hun­gary, such as my fa­ther, or some­one like Romain Gary, work­ing in the French diplo­matic ser­vice in the 1950s, with its then as­sumed an­ti­semitism, might not wish to ad­ver­tise their Jewish cre­den­tials. But in the 21st cen­tury, a Jew liv­ing in a coun­try with­out re­li­gious per­se­cu­tion should no longer have qualms about declar­ing his Jewish­ness. Right?

Well, that’s what I thought un­til my friend Stephen re­cently told me about his fa­ther, whose fam­ily em­i­grated to Eng­land from Poland be­fore the war and an­gli­cised their name.

In all re­spects, says Stephen, his Papa ap­pears to be the quin­tes­sen­tial English­man, pub­lic school ac­cent and all. He re­tired years ago to Thai­land, where he en­joys a so­cial cir­cle of both lo­cals and ex-pats… none of whom is aware that he was once a Pol­ish-Jewish émi­gré.

Just for fun, Stephen in­cor­po­rated the fam­ily’s orig­i­nal, Jewish, sur­name in a new so­cial me­dia ac­count. When his fa­ther found out, the old man was apoplec­tic.

“Have you done this de­lib­er­ately to an­tag­o­nise me,” he fumed. “I in­sist you change that at once!” Stephen re­fused. He points out that his fa­ther’s friends in Thai­land couldn’t care less whether he is Jewish or Chris­tian or Bud­dhist.

“I’ve met them and they’re a laid-back bunch,” Stephen says. “But my fa­ther is play­ing a role and doesn’t want his cover blown.” Their re­la­tion­ship has soured com­pletely.

An­ti­semitism is fed by Jews who still cleave to this sort of se­crecy and its im­plicit sense of shame. It plays into the hands of those who be­lieve that to be Jewish is some­thing shame­ful. They should grow a back­bone al­ready and stop adding to the prob­lem.

The Jew-in­de­nial is a well- known quan­tity

Mon­ica Porter is a free­lance jour­nal­ist

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