If you’d asked me two months ago how close I’d ever come to having a Jewish mother-in-law, I might have sheepishly recounted the time a close Jewish friend called me from his late father’s post-funeral reception. He needed a break from all the fuss and emotional strain (read: his mother) and wanted to chat. At one point, I asked him about the yapping I could hear in the background. “Is that a chihuahua?” I wondered aloud. I was mortified by his deadpan answer: “No, that’s my mother.”
So it was with no small measure of relief that I met my future mother-in-law many years later and confirmed that she showed none of the dreaded peculiarities that mothers-in-law are renowned to possess. Furthermore, I was marrying into a Catholic family, so my main worry was whether someone would honour me by asking me to say grace, the words to which I could never remember because I never said it. If I had any concerns of a Jewish nature, it was regarding my own parentage, not my husband’s.
I had been brought up an atheist in a European home and converted to a weak brand of Catholicism at university. Forms requiring me to tick an ethnic box had plagued my adult life. For a time, I doggedly listed nine ethnicities under the ‘other’ category, but ‘mixed’ had become my shorthand for my unusual background. Being of two races and multiple ethnicities was not, however, always a blessing and had elicited disapproval from more than one potential in-law. Then there was that little-spoken Jewish connection….
Now, I’m not technically Jewish as far as I know – I couldn’t even tell you my maternal grandmother’s name – but when you get hate mail calling you a “dirty Jewess” this technicality becomes rather irrelevant. What I do know is that if my mother had come of age in Nazi Germany she would have been categorised as a Mischling (crossbreed) solely due to her paternal parentage. She would never have been allowed to marry my father, and I would never have been born. The bottom line is that even our post- and anti-Nazi society tends to accept the ‘one drop rule’ when it comes to race. Growing up, my Jewish blood meant little to me, but now it comes up every time I defend Israel or speak out against anti-Semitism, as if having even one drop of Jewish blood discredits the most reasonable and evidence-based arguments. Oddly, for everyone else, being something – a woman, black, or gay, for example – gives you a unique perspective, but when it comes to being Jewish (or white or male for that matter) it just makes you biased.
But back to my mother-in-law.
As you might guess from my last name, Góra, my husband comes from a Polish Catholic family. My experience of Polish Catholics at that time had been fairly negative. I hadn’t met any of the Poles whose family members had been slaughtered for helping Jews during the Holocaust. I’d only come across those who wanted as few Jews in Poland as possible. So I didn’t bring up the Jewish blood on my mother’s side with anyone except my fiancé (who assured me his family wasn’t anti-Semitic). I was just relieved my future husband’s family didn’t have any objections to the next generation of Góras having Oriental blood in their veins.
Fast forward nine years, and I found myself at my mother-in-law’s dinner table with two Catholic brothers (of the monastic variety). What was unusual about this was that one of them was a Hebrew Catholic. He still observed Jewish laws and customs despite conversion to the Catholic faith. He had made aliyah, been to yeshiva in Israel, and was pleased to have been invited by some local Orthodox Jews – mutual friends, as it happened – to sound the shofar at Rosh Hashanah. This was a lovely turn of events, but what I did not anticipate was that the conversation would focus on my mother-in-law’s maternal ancestry or that Brother Gilbert would turn out to be an enthusiastic and resourceful family historian.
He took one little enigma, the name Merle or Mirel running consistently through the maternal line, and opened up a secret world in my mother-in-law’s ancestry. It seems Mirel, like the name Mary, is a variant of Miriam, the name coincidentally given to one of my sisters-in-law. Mary Curran, an Irish emigrant to Tasmania, turned out to really be Mirel Cohen. Her mother, another Merle, came from a Dutch Jewish family, and her parents were called Jacob and Chana. (Hannah, again coincidentally, is the name of another of my sisters-in-law.) Chana in turn was the great-great-grand-daughter of the famous Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschütz.
So what, you might say. What does it matter that a retired music teacher in far-flung Tasmania has discovered her Jewish ancestry?
I suppose my point is that the past, including our own, is full of secrets waiting to be discovered. Sometimes, they’re not even secrets, but they might as well be so. Israel under the British mandate is just one area of history full of these quasi-secrets, basic and accessible facts ignored by the media and contradicted by anti-Israel propaganda. It should be common knowledge that the 1922 British Palestine Mandate was for the establishment in Palestine of a “national home for the Jewish people”, and that this mandate was the “recognition” by the Council of the League of Nations of “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine” and “the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country”. Likewise, to speak correctly of the occupation of Gaza or the West Bank one should be referring (historically) to Egypt and Jordan respectively. Yet journalists and diplomats alike speak of Israel’s ‘occupation’, even in Gaza where there isn’t a single Israeli to be found. In the dispute over territory, Israel has already been judged guilty as the “occupier” even though the reality is quite the opposite.
I have heard many say that the Middle East is plagued by “too much history”, that the past precludes democracy and peace. I disagree. What there has been too much of is lies and propaganda. There hasn’t been enough history. There hasn’t been enough illumination of the past. There hasn’t been enough understanding of what really happened, good as well as bad.
Here, at the edge of civilisation, I may not be in the thick of it – the occupied territory south of here is dominated by penguins – but the truth is not relative, it doesn’t depend on me being ‘on the ground’. Quite the contrary, as I know full well from being ‘on the ground’ in a war zone in the days before the internet and mobile ‘phones, seeing things ‘with your own eyes’ and being ‘involved’ can perplex as much as it enlightens. There is something to be said for perspective.
Personally speaking, I take it as a compliment when someone labels me a Jew, but it’s not quite correct – my Jewish heritage is only part of the bigger picture. As it turns out, my children may be more ‘Jewish’ than me and they will make their own contributions to our family history, but only time will tell. In the meantime, I want to know more about the Jewish part of our story, both past and present, personal and political. I hope you will join me at this blog as I delve into the past and illuminate stories untold… or stories that just need a bit of dusting off.