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 half-Jewish, 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.
Monica Porter is a freelance journalist