I’ve been reflecting on the subject of Jews who hide their Jewishness for fear of being ostracised, and 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 late British 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 anti-Semitic French people, 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? 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 literary career, but his Jewish origins were nonetheless part of his lifelong weltschmerz. He eventually committed suicide.
I was reminded of how I only discovered my own Jewish background at the age of 22, back in the Seventies, 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 anti-Semitic unpleasantness, both during our years in America, and later in England. When I asked him why he hadn’t told me sooner that I was half-Jewish, he replied: ‘If I’d ever heard you make an anti-Semitic remark, don’t worry, I would have told you at once.’
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 concerned. He must have felt that times had changed and it wasn’t an issue.
The late journalist Christopher Hitchens had a similar experience to mine. He was 38 when he learned that his mother, who had killed herself 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 the Hungary of the Thirties, such as my father, or someone like Romain Gary, working in the French diplomatic service in the Fifties, with its then assumed anti-Semitism, 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 told me recently about his father, whose family had emigrated to England from Poland before the war and anglicised their name. In all respects, says Stephen, his elderly Papa appears to be the quintessential Englishman, pukka 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 he had set up for himself. 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. But my father is playing a role and doesn’t want his cover blown.’ Their relationship has now soured and they aren’t on speaking terms.
Anti-Semitism 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.