Family & Education

My almost accidental case of marrying ‘in’

Novelist Amanda Craig hardly knew she was Jewish - but books filled the gap


My mother would never talk about her family.

By the time I was born, all my grandparents were dead. My parents left South Africa in the wake of the Sharpeville Massacre, which was a turning point in the battle against apartheid but also the end of colonial life for them.

To my father, who had emigrated from Britain to Johannesburg in the wake of the Second World War, it was a country which granted him unparalleled freedoms, from a driving licence to a job on the Johannesburg Star, merely because he was a white man.

He was not Jewish, and in many ways, his opposition to apartheid was more courageous because it cost him something. It gave him the thing which most of us long for: the chance to leave behind your first, unhappy or unsuccessful version of yourself and step into a shiny new skin.

But to my mother, it was always far more complex, not least because this was not the first time she had lost everything.

My mother’s mother, Pauline, was a scion of a Jewish family whose members included distinguished academics, mathematicians, musicians, scientists, lawyers, doctors. “But no journalists,” my mother would say, adding, “Journalists are always the most interesting people of all.”

Originally from Russia, the Sugarmans had emigrated to South Africa from Lithuania when one of Pauline’s sisters Tibol married Abraham Alper, whose four daughters became a doctor, a dendrologist, a scientist and an opera singer. All had brilliant children in turn. The most outstanding of my mother’s cousins was Tikvah Alper, a pioneering physicist and radiobiologist who worked on prions as the cause of scrapie, the brain disease in sheep, cattle and humans that achieved prominence during the mad cow disease outbreak in the 1990s. (She also, according to family legend, originated the phrase “back to square one”, referring to the game of Snakes and Ladders as regarding her own research.)

Pauline was, according to family legend, both artistically gifted and the most beautiful. It was the kind of beauty that struck men like a thunderbolt; and when she met my grandfather, on a ship to Durban, they were both smitten.

But he was not Jewish. On the contrary: his family were soldiers, explorers, farmers, hunters, a mixture of Afrikaner and Scottish “straight out of H Rider Haggard,” my mother would say. (One, an extraordinarily brave game-warden is commemorated in the Wolhuter Walk of the Kruger National Park.) James Wolhuter was a former soldier who scuttled a German boat on Lake Tanganyika in a battle, which he then dredged up and captained.

This was not the kind of husband the prosperous Sugarmans wished for their daughter, even though they were non-practising Jews. A Calvinist, a Gentile and a non-intellectual was bound to be a disaster. Pauline was offered every inducement not to marry him, including a round-the-world cruise. It didn’t work. The couple left both their families, and Pauline went to live in East Africa by the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

For a while, they were blissfully happy. They had a lovely Colonial house, and my grandmother had two children, my uncle Warden and my mother.

But Pauline died of a poisonous spider bite, far from a hospital and in the days before antibiotics. My mother, aged two and her elder brother were left with a grief-stricken father who never recovered from the blow. Every six months the children were shuttled between the robust, Philistine Anglo-Afrikaans side and the talented, intellectual Jewish-Russian side. My mother seems to have been regarded as frivolously arty by the Jewish side and as incomprehensibly pretentious by the Afrikaner side something exacerbated, no doubt, by going to Witts University at sixteen to read English and History of Art.

“She got the looks and the brains,” said my uncle, fifty years later. Both he and my mother inherited £2000 each after the Second World War, when their father died. My uncle bought a farm in Rhodesia, marrying into a family of successful dairy farmers. The wars of independence meant they fled what became Zimbabwe to South Africa. For the last 30 years of their lives, my parents sent them money every month, vital to their survival.

My mother, greatly to the irritation of both families, spent her inheritance on two years in Europe, following her passion for history of art. It was transformative in many ways; for one thing, she has no trace of a South African accent.

“I do not feel Jewish,” she told me, repeatedly. “If I feel anything, it’s English. You are English.”

Marrying out, in a deeply conservative colonial society, must have been difficult to handle, and even more so considering how perilous the situation of Jews became. Originally kindly disposed towards Jews due to their own experiences of British concentration camps, the poor white Afrikaaner was vulnerable to Nazi propaganda.

A flood of fleeing German Jews arriving in the 1930s, all through my mother’s childhood, exacerbated this. She is not a self-hating Jew, but she chose to step out of that side of her heritage when she embraced my father’s British identity and Scottish surname. No word of Yiddish ever crossed her lips.

“I don’t want to talk about it, it’s too upsetting,” was her usual response when questioned about her family. “You’re a Craig, that’s what matters. You are English. You are the child of journalists.”

She was a brilliant mother and an inspired teacher, yet I discovered that I was Jewish only after hearing the word “Jewish” applied to anyone at my liberal, progressive boarding school who seemed mean: my mother was shocked into telling me the truth. I was perturbed: I’d read plenty of classic fiction in which Jews were routinely depicted as greedy, dirty, thieving and ugly. The most distressing was TS Eliot, a poet I deeply admired until I came across his lines about Jews squatting among rats.

So what was it that stopped this poison from rooting itself in my own heart too?

Partly it was reading The Diary of Anne Frank. It was not difficult to work out that this other bookish, idealistic, gentle teenager was a kindred spirit. Learning about the Holocaust in history lessons made me reel with horror and terror, but it also focused my sense of morality and identity. To Nazis, I was a Jew. Apart from my cousin Tikvah Alper and her husband Max Stern, (the last people I could imagine squatting among rats) I knew no Jews, yet I was increasingly drawn to all kinds of Jewish writers from Virginia Woolf and Gloria Steinem to Tom Stoppard and Proust.

It was when I read George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda at eighteen that I began to be really interested. I had no hunger like Deronda’s to go to Israel (“the country where you were conceived,” my mother let drop, casually, one day) but I shared his yearning for something. Or was it someone?

More and more of those I liked best, as an adult, had one thing in common. They were also Jewish, or partly so. It was like a hidden thread in so many friendships that I was bemused when it revealed itself. I don’t “look” Jewish: I am not religious and am enormously proud of being British. I love its landscape, peoples, eccentricities, fair-mindedness, literature, art, stubbornness, steadfastness, politeness, humour, low cunning and high-mindedness. I even love its climate. Yet I felt Jewish, too. I love Jewish humour, courage, intellectual curiosity, rational rigour, emotional fierceness, family loyalty and celebration of the senses.

To me, this “otherness” is one of the jewels of being Jewish. I reject with horror the efforts of Momentum and Jeremy Corbyn to depict British Jews as alien, unpatriotic, greedy, humourless and odd, but I also embrace being able to view gentile British life as something peculiar, too. To be both insider and outsider is a gift for a novelist like myself, fascinated by contemporary life and its conflicts.

Eventually that same thunderbolt that had struck my grandparents came for me. I met him at a party, and he was the most handsome man I had ever seen as well as the most interesting and kind. I discovered that he came from a large Jewish clan, originally from Lithuania, whose members included academics, mathematicians, engineers, doctors, lawyers, singers and yes, even journalists. (His grandfather, Israel, had been a well-known reporter on the Polish pogroms for the Times.)

My mother said, “Well, you look like the cat who’s got the cream. What’s he called?”

I told her, adding with a touch of defiance, “His surname is Cohen.”

There was a long pause. Then she said dryly, “Mazeltov! How happy that would have made my grandparents.”


Amanda Craig and Keren David will be discussing Jews as Outsiders and Insiders at Cambridge Limmud on Sunday 4 November. Her seventh novel, The Lie of the Land, is published by Abacus £8.99



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