Life & Culture

‘Being Jewish is a gift for a novelist’

The writer on the insider-outsider status of being a Jew, and why she enjoys confounding prejudice in her fiction and in life


Mother's pride: a baby Amanda with mum Zelda, in South Africa

I have red hair, blue eyes and the pale skin that goes with a Scottish surname — but I am a Jew. Many people are surprised to learn this, having a stereotypical idea of what a Jew looks like, and that, I believe, is one of my assets as a novelist. I feel both insider and outsider, which has led me to be acutely aware of the best of Britain, and the worst.

Until I was 13, I had no consciousness of being a Jew. I was brought up by two atheist parents: if we went into any church, it was to worship Renaissance art. Because we lived in Italy, I was sent to Bedales, a progressive public school where, if you refused to share a piece of chocolate, pupils exclaimed “Don’t be so Jewish.” I had absolutely no idea what this meant.

Then, one day aged 13, I read Anne Frank’s Diary. It electrified me, but what was still more startling was to learn that, thanks my beautiful and brilliant mother, Zelda, I would have been sent to the gas chambers in 1940s Europe.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked her, incredulous.

The answer was complex, involving the fact that her own mother came from a distinguished intellectual family of Russian Jews who sat shiva when she married out. My grandmother’s tragic death when my mother was just two, and the not irrational fear of antisemitism in 1930s South Africa where she, and I, were born, did the rest.

I hate bullying above all things, and I also enjoy confounding prejudice. Exactly when I began to say in response to my liberal progressive schoolfellows’ “Don’t be Jewish”, “But I AM Jewish”, I’m not sure, but I found myself strongly drawn to the handful of other Jews. Why wouldn’t I be, given that they were mostly the brightest, funniest and most talented pupils there? Even so, I was surprised to discover that we are a highly varied minority. There are black Ethiopian Jews, Yemeni Jews, Chinese Jews and Indian Jews, as well as many who are indistinguishable from Arabs, Swedes or Celts. When I met my husband after university, I didn’t immediately realise that he was Jewish either, but I had already fallen in love with George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, and there he was, only with a large and delightfully donnish family of Cohens. Like myself, they loved the English countryside, music, literature, food, debate and jokes. I had found my tribe.

They, and we, are about as fully assimilated into British life as it is possible to be, with an enthusiasm for shellfish and salami that would horrify our grandparents, and the biggest tree we can find every Christmas. We celebrate Passover together but have left it to our children to decide what, if any, religion they cleave to: my daughter’s partner is Israeli, but my son’s is Italian, so go figure.

But becoming a Cohen has also shown me the underbelly of antisemitism that still exists in all countries. The worst, in my experience, have been in France and the US, where seemingly civilised people have ranted to me about how all Jews are “rich” and “greedy” before I have responded politely, “How interesting to learn this, I am a Jew.” It always upsets them… though not as much as when I said it to a man who was in love with me after he claimed that “all Jews are ugly”.

My own aim is always to show people — good, ugly, beautiful, spiteful, clever or stupid – as human beings, and so I have inevitably explored racism in all my nine novels, including the most recent one, The Three Graces. Prejudice diminishes the prejudiced, whether it concerns people who are black, Jewish, Muslim, gay or absurdly, in the case of one of my Tuscan characters, if they are from Umbria. Ruth, one of my three elderly heroines, is a particular case in point. She is the psychotherapist descendent of Polish Jews, who has become an organic farmer in Tuscany.

My novel is about female friendship in all its glories, comedy and painful flaws, and I was determined to have Ruth show her friend just how wrong her friend and neighbour Lady Evenlode is after she hears “the bat-squeak of antisemitism”. One of the things that brings them together is their mutual admiration for Trollope’s magnificent Jewish heroine Madame Max, which it just so happens I share too; but it’s also the love of family, which is, of course, common to all loving hearts.

I have always made a point of having Jewish heroes or heroines as part of my constellation of interconnected fictional characters. Fiction thrives on friction, but what began for me as a teenager as a kind of outraged rebellion, then a stimulus to sympathetic imagination, has become a much simpler hope: for a deeper understanding and acceptance of what can never be “other”.

Amanda Craig is talking with Martha Anne Toll and Samatha Ellis about Exile and Adventure at the Jewish Literary Foundation’s Book Week 24  on Sunday March 10 at 12.30

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