The Rabbi’s Wife


Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Portrait of a Young Jewish Woman in Her Twenties, c. 1840

by Jenny Diski

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.

Piece crossposted with This and That Continued. Translated from the Swedish, pubished in the Goteborg-Posten, November 2011.