The Rabbi’s Wife

I was born in central London two years after the Second World War. My parents were first-generation British Jews, brought up in London’s East End by their immigrant parents who had escaped from the Eastern European pogroms in the early years of the twentieth century.  Since my birth in 1947, no one has ever said to me ‘You would all be dead. Your mother, your forefathers, would all be fucking gassed,’ as clothes designer John Galliano said recently to a woman in a bar in Paris. Nor has anyone ever called me, as Mel Gibson once called the Jewish Winona Ryder, ‘an oven-dodger’.

In the second decade of the twenty-first century rampant anti-semitism seems to be having a fashionable moment. The continuously exploding Charlie Sheen chose to rename his producer, Chuck Lorre (né Charles Levine), Chaim Levine, to make some sort of point, and called his manager a ‘stooped Jewish pig’. The troubled and troubling Julian Assange allegedly called up the editor of the satirical magazine, Private Eye, to explain that there was a Jewish media conspiracy against him in England, and is known to be friendly with the mysterious Israel Shamir (aka Jöran Jermas) who as well as believing in a Jewish media cabal, says that the Jews plan to take over the world after securing Jerusalem, and that the holocaust was nothing like as bad as the Jews claim it to have been.

Aside from celebrity abuse, there seems to be a general rise in anti-semitic speech and behaviour, partly because Jews, where ever they are from and whatever their views, are equated with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and partly because generalised anti-Jewish feeling, here in the UK as everywhere else, has always been popular and has never gone away.

Like most things in the country of my birth the expression of anti-semitism is a matter of class. What would be thought of as outright racism, such as the British National Party’s wish to repatriate the Jews along with non-white immigrants and their children to…someplace or other, is largely a working class or lower-middle class phenomenon. The more middle and upper class version of anti-semitism would not be regarded, by those classes at least, as racism. It is simply an in-group assumption, a matter for amusement and mutual agreement, and a poor show exhibiting a lack of a sense of humour if you call it by a nasty name.

My parents met with the working-class kind of anti-semitism in the 1930’s when Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts marched through the Jewish areas of the East End. I, as I say, have never personally experienced overt anti-semitism, if you don’t count the group of boys at school who regularly lay in wait for me to sneer ‘Here comes the Rabbi’s wife’ when I was twelve, and not getting into Grey Coats School, after passing the 11 +, because their Jewish quota was filled. But the other, classier, sort of anti-semitism has been part of my experience for as long as I can remember. Being Jewish, growing up and living in post-war England, has always made me feel something other than precisely English. Don’t get me wrong, not feeling entirely at home in the country of my birth is no bad thing. I actually value my lifelong sense of alienation, although to most people from other countries, I would seem to be as English as the English come.

My first dramatic encounter with my own Jewishness in the eyes of others was at my primary school, where at the age of 8 or 9 (not long after the facts of the holocaust had been made public) I was asked by a group of my peers in the playground where I was from. I was surprised. I’m English, I said. No you’re not, you’re Jewish, they told me, and added that I had killed Jesus. We sang about Jesus every morning in assembly – Gentle Jesus, meek and mild – and I wasn’t unimpressed that I might have been responsible for such an important person’s death, though I had no recollection of the deed. What I was, or had been, sure of, was that I was English. I had a birth certificate that said so. That’s what I told the children in the playground. But when I stopped to think about it, I’d always known that something didn’t fit about us. We never exactly belonged to that tightly strung class system that depended on how you how you spoke, who you knew, what you ate, what you wore and how you furnished your house. I couldn’t place myself so easily or precisely as I could place my non-Jewish acquaintances, because although we were hardly religious Jews, and spoke English as our mother tongue, though smattered with Yiddish words and phrases, we did so much of daily existence so differently that we never slotted into a proper, recognized sector of the social structure.

When my mother and I walked around in the central London streets, people actually stopped us on several occasions to ask if we were Italian. London was so homogenous a place in the early 1950’s that to look ‘mediterranean’ was something strangers took an interest in. They were quite friendly, but nevertheless, the word ‘cosmopolitan’ was used about our features, a word that often encoded for Jewish in newspapers, books and public discourse. We ate food that derived from Eastern Europe, used words that came from my Yiddish-speaking grandparents, and, although we ate bacon with relish, considered chicken soup an inalienable human right. (Hadley Freeman, in The Guardian greeted the news that Galliano had gone into rehab after the Jewish incident with the baffled question: ‘how does antisemitic rehab work? Is he force-fed matzo-ball soup? Made to watch Annie Hall on loop? Taught the ways of hypochondria? Gosh, sounds kinda like my childhood.’)

Since then, every now and again, I am reminded that I am still a stranger in a strange land. At a middle-class dinner table (my own, actually) I have listened to an hilarious recounting, by people with long English heritages, of attending a Jewish wedding, and the awful clothes, the bling, the raucous voices and excessive bad taste they had to put up with. The sister and brother-in-law of my best friend came directly from Sunday lunch at a restaurant and regaled us with a description of ‘the Jews’ at the next table who wore so much gold jewellery that they clanked as they scoffed food too fast and shrieked at each other about how much money they’d made that week. Surprisingly often, on social occasions, I have had apparently regular, intelligent people explain to me that ‘the Jews’ run the media and prevent various kinds of truth being told; and once I was told by a painter that good reviews of art by non-Jewish painters were excluded from publication by Jewish editors and newspaper owners. All these things are said with the assumption that they were only confirming what the rest of the company already know. The one Jew in their midst – that would be me – was either not known to be Jewish, or it was assumed that I am ‘sophisticated’ enough to find the crudeness and greed of Jews as true, funny and distasteful as the rest of the world.

My reaction is always to feel excruciating embarrassment. This is part of my Englishness, I suppose, but the embarrassment is for them, for their public revelation about themselves, their  coarseness, and for what they are going to feel when they realise, or remember, that one of the party is Jewish and not laughing. Sometimes, wearily, I point my semitic profile in their direction to give them a clue. They occasionally get it, change the subject, hastily leave the room, or a silence falls which I feel it is my duty as a social being to fill with a new topic of conversation. Sometimes though there’s a strong sense that, yes, of course we know you’re Jewish, but, come on, you know what we mean, and where’s your irony? In this, being Jewish is quite like being a woman and expected to laugh at sexism. My irony, in such circumstances, does seem to have gone missing, and it’s true that making jokes about Jews is one of the pleasures of being with other Jews.

But I find myself in a double difficulty. I am against antisemitism and racism in general, but I am also against the idea of Zionism and dismayed by its consequences. More than that, I positively relish the Jewish diaspora. The great thing about the Jews is the fact that they are dotted about all over the world, participating in every other culture, while also sharing and holding on to a changing culture of their own. I find this infinitely preferable to nationalism. I have no sense at all that Israel has anything to do with me. I see no justification for demanding a national homeland that was and is already inhabited by others, based on a fictional narrative written by various hands thousands of years ago. In particular I deplore the Israeli state’s treatment of the Palestinians and its use of the holocaust as a rationale for displacing and persecuting people. This position is regarded by pro-Israeli Jews as worse than lacking a sense of humour. So I find myself, with many other Jewish people who have expressed these views, on the online Jewish S.H.I.T. LIST (where SHIT stands for ‘Self-Hating and/or Israel-Threatening’). It’s quite strange, but perhaps again bracing for my positive sense of non-belonging, to be both an anti-semite to some Jews and to disappoint some Gentiles by my stubbornness in  refusing to get the anti-semitic joke.

First published in the Goteborg-Posten in November 2011

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Dirt, meat and death: a city childhood.

 

I am what one historian calls post-domestic.  Unless you are a hill farmer, or a herder (in which case you are an anachronism, which won’t come as a surprise since making a living in either of those ways is very difficult) so are you.  It isn’t just that I was born in the mid-twentieth century in the dead centre of a great city.  It isn’t just that I’m Jewish and almost by definition urban. My grandparents came from the shtetl: they were traders, furriers, tailors, but at some point they must have ridden horses, or used them to pull carts.  They would have kept chickens and killed them under the watchful eye of the rabbi.  My mother, although born in London in 1912, knew how to singe and dress chickens that came, head and feet on, insides inside, from the kosher butcher.  Even so, the children of immigrants like my parents put the shtetls behind them as much as possible.  Their old people were old world embarrassments, for all that they had made the bold journey from a hostile middle Europe to unknown and far-away city centres.

Neat, clean clothes confirmed how far we had come from the old country.  My mother was adept at defining a lady.  A lady always wears pale gloves, carries a clean handkerchief.  A lady does not mess with dirtying nature, except in the kitchen to prepare it to look other than what it was by chopping and cooking, and, I would like to suppose, sometimes at least, in bed.  My mother and father both fled into the urbane.  When I was young we lived in a centrally-heated block of flats, a man way down in the basement stoked the boiler, another man came every week and took the dirty sheets and brought them back washed and ironed.  My ladylike gloves were white.  We had a little more to prove, but I don’t think we were exceptional among the many families of the Fifties: the goal was to achieve and hang on to respectability.  Falling over was frowned on, not just because you hurt yourself, but because it dirtied you up: stuff from the pavement on your clothes, blood, no longer contained, staining those nice neat socks and handkerchiefs. We walked or went on buses or taxis to shops or to the park, where children have to be taken.  Russell Square, a small patch of green in central London, or the larger patch of Regent’s Park in the other direction.  When I was old enough – seven or eight I went alone or with friends.  But be careful not to sit on the grass without putting something down first.  Those patches of unpaved earth were what Americans call it: dirt.  Near enough to nature to be reminiscent of  countryside.

My mother spent her days dusting and polishing and cleaning, but our flat was so small, I can’t imagine how it occupied her for more than half an hour a day.  She washed herself and me as if we spent our lives in dark and dusty tunnels.  Especially down there, in the animal – the natural – the private – parts.  Not that they had much opportunity to get dirty – clean knickers every morning and careful lessons in how to wipe yourself after urinating or defecating.  My mother was prepared to confront the dirty animal but only to ensure that it never, never got a hold on our existence.  My father shaved with a strap-sharpened razor, left a manicured garden of moustache on his upper lip, forced his wavy hair flat on his head with a hair cream and splashed more scented stuff on him to keep the smell of body at bay.  But according to my mother, he was not as fastidious as she was in matter of washing or in matters of other people’s natural parts.  My mother abhorred his washing and sexual behaviours as ‘filthy’.  Good things were ‘nice’, bad things were ‘not nice’.  Clean was ‘nice and clean’.  Good was not making a mess of the clothes that were specifically chosen to show how much we were not people of the countryside.  My woollen vests, in the days when we could still afford them, came from shops in ‘Brussels’ not from Belgium where they kept the sheep.  Clean knickers and a clean private part were, as mothers everywhere explained, in case of an accident on the street, not impossible in an urban environment and public, in order to show those who assisted us or pronounced us dead how far we were from country dirtiness.  Post-domestic.

Dogs, cats and birds encountered on the streets were always to be ignored and avoided. But there were exceptions. The great masses of starlings in central London at that time were a sight to see, worth stopping and looking up at, swarming in their thousands on the roof of the National Gallery in the late afternoons and taking off simultaneously in a fluttering, shrieking cloud that swooped all of a piece across the London sky.  And I regularly fed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square which stood ravenously on my hands, shoulders and head to get at the corn on my open palm.  A strange anomaly of urban animal-loving.  Now they are flying rats, filthy, disease-ridden.  They have been hounded out of Trafalgar Square and are shot in the dead of night to discourage their presence on public buildings and under bridges.  But I have a photograph of my mother and me with pigeons perched on our heads and shoulders, and my mother smiling quite benignly.

I went with her to the butcher and sat in my pushchair, close to the pale sawdust, looking at dead chickens hanging by the neck from hooks, and slabs of meat being tidied with string into unfleshy shapes that bore no relation to anything that had ever lived.  It was a shop where they neatened death into food.  And it was a kosher butcher, which meant that the meat had been drained of its life blood and prayed over.  Processed away from living creatures as far as it was possible and the processing continued back home in the kitchen.  Salt beef was an oval cylinder tied up with string, fish was filleted and covered in matzo meal batter, liver was chopped into a patė.  Only chickens remained somewhat lifelike, though dead and featherless.  A little bit of bucolic reality.  They even retained their shape and features in the cooking.  Chicken soup, essential Jewish food, was made with the whole chicken, minus the head, including the giblets (gizzard, liver, heart, neck) any unlaid eggs (a special treat, little hard-boiled yolklets), and the feet.  Actually as Chinese as Jewish, but gnawing on a chicken’s claw, all gristle and bone, and being presented with the chewy gizzard, was a weekly childhood happiness.   So my experience of the non-human animal was the smell in the butchers, various unmediated parts of a cooked chicken, close encounters with disease-ridden pests and an appreciation of starlings.

 

There was, of course, Georgie, the budgie, who had every week to have his cage ritually cleaned, which indicates that my parents were not as harshly averse to animals as I suggest. And once I found a baby bird fallen from a nest in Regent’s Park.  I brought it home to the flat.  My mother, confronted with the poor, helpless, squealing thing, got a saucer of bread soaked in milk and we tried to feed it with tweezers, but it wouldn’t or couldn’t eat, and writhing in our nervous, urban hands, wriggled away and fled at its first opportunity to the darkness and warmth behind the radiator, where it got stuck.  It was a grim nature lesson.  My mother, panicking, as I would now in the same circumstances, tried to tease it and then poke it out with a stick of some kind – a wooden spoon, a fish slice?  The wretched little creature screamed for its own kind, and shrank from the probe, and we wailed and flailed around trying to get at the trapped bird, making it retreat even further into stuckness, and us all the more appalled.  It was doubly in the wrong place.  Not at the foot of a tree under its nest.  Wedged in the space between a far-too-hot metal radiator and the living-room wall.  Eventually, the cheeping stopped.  My mother flapped on the phone to the porters in the entrance hall and one of them arrived to dig out and dispose of the corpse.

It was an experience that was much worse than watching my mother prepare a dead chicken for the pot.  Baby birds, like baby anything else, are fearsomely attractive, with those same big eyes and rounded head that evolution happened upon to make hearts melt.  It was helpless and I rescued it, as I thought, and then it all went terribly wrong.  This was the danger, and always has been with befriended animals, even the ones we call pets. It would not behave as a rescued creature was supposed to behave.  It didn’t understand enough.  It wouldn’t eat, it didn’t love us or trust us, it tried to get away from us, and turned itself from a sweet baby creature into a trapped and dying animal.  A disappointment.  A let-down.  A regret.  Unlike my three stuffed bears who were completely reliable.  Once the baby bird was behind the radiator, I didn’t want it any more.  I only wanted it not to be there, never to have seen it, not to have picked it up.  I knew it wouldn’t survive, and that I hadn’t saved it.  It was a baby thing that I had brought home to die a much worse death than if I had left it alone.  At any rate a death in my presence.  My fault, but its fault, too, for not behaving properly.  For not complying with the rules about humans saving animals; but having a life – a nature – of its own.  I was disgusted by its horrible end in my flat.  As soon as it was stuck behind the radiator, actually, as soon as it refused to eat, I wished it would shut up and die immediately.

 

This is a version of the beginning of my book What I Don’t Know About Animals. The excerpt was published originally by Drawbridge magazine.