Miriam Gross

What it means to be Jewish

The tendency to put everyone into an ethnic slot is impoverishing society

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The fact that I am Jewish has always mystified me. It bears no relation to anything else in my life — not to the way I was brought up, not to religion since I am agnostic, nor to any community in which I have lived.

My parents both came from secular, middle-class, professional German (and Russian) families and although — unlike thousands of German Jews in the 19th and early 20th century — they didn’t convert to Christianity, they were nevertheless assimilated members of German society. Indeed they believed that assimilation was the best answer to the Jewish ‘problem’. My mother hoped that I would marry a non-Jew, preferably an Englishman.

Despite these views my parents both emigrated to Palestine in the 1930s (they weren’t married at the time), very soon after the Nazis started introducing anti-Jewish legislation. They did this in a spirit of defiance and adventure — they were in their twenties — but also as a precaution: Palestine might have become the only place where Jews could live in safety. Their Jewishness, like that of so many German Jews, was in a sense ‘thrust upon them’ by anti-Semitism.

But my parents were never Zionists and they returned to Europe soon after the creation of the state of Israel, mainly for professional reasons but also because they disliked nationalism of any kind, even Jewish nationalism. I was sent to an English boarding school where being Jewish was neither here nor there — it was never mentioned. If I felt myself to be an outsider, it was because I was foreign, because I arrived here without knowing a word of English and because I didn’t have a home or a family in England.

Of course I was aware of the history of anti-Semitism, of Hitler and the Holocaust, but it seemed that these terrible things, however unforgettable, were over and done with. I learnt nothing about Judaism or about Jewish traditions and culture at school, any more than I did from my parents. I never once took part in a Jewish festival nor did I ever go into a synagogue.

So it is not surprising that, for most of my life, I have had almost no sense of Jewish identity. I feel much more English than Jewish. This must be true of hundreds of Jews with similar backgrounds. It is perhaps even truer of people like Tom Stoppard, who didn’t discover that he was Jewish until well into adulthood.

When someone assumes that I will want to join an organisation or take a special interest in an event just because it is Jewish, I feel quite irritated — why should I automatically have something in common with the people involved? After all, Jews are as different from one another as non-Jews. It’s true that there are some recognisable Jewish characteristics, resulting from historical and cultural circumstances, just as there are various recognisably Jewish physical types which derive from their geographical origins; but these are superficial similarities.

What, for example, do Einstein and Lauren Bacall have in common? Or Kafka and Michael Howard, or Primo Levi and Philip Green, or the Chief Rabbi and Ruby Wax? Or, for that matter, an Algerian Jewish farmer and a New York psychoanalyst? Nothing. Or rather, only one thing: Hitler would transport them all to a concentration camp.

The question of whether there is such a thing as a Jewish race has been endlessly debated, but race has always seemed to me a meaningless concept when applied to people whose physical appearances range from the swarthily Semitic to the blondly Danish and whose moral, social and intellectual characteristics cover the whole gamut of human behaviour.

However, just as my parents were forced by the Nazis to focus on their Jewishness, so the recent resurgence of anti-Semitism in many parts of the world has made me much more conscious of being a Jew. Not that I have ever personally encountered anti-Semitism. But even in England — which, whatever anyone might say to the contrary, is not a racist country — there is more of it in the air; the anti-Semitism of the past, which I mistakenly thought had faded away, is coming back into the open.

So that I now sometimes find myself telling new acquaintances that I am Jewish for no other reason than to prevent the possibility of their letting drop some anti-Semitic remark. It would be less easy to do this when talking to Muslims who have been taught that Jews are devils, responsible for all the ills of the world including 9/11; or who have perhaps read and believed the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that horrible forgery which is now a bestseller throughout the Arab world.

In this new climate I feel more of a bond with other Jews than I ever have in the past — indeed it is a rather comforting fellow feeling, somewhat akin, perhaps, to belonging to a secret society. But no one would wish to acquire a sense of identity based on the negative fact of other people’s prejudices. It’s true that many Jews, perhaps most, have been shaped by traditional Jewish religion and culture, but it would be spurious for me to claim a part in experiences which I don’t share.

I still believe, as did my parents and my teachers, that people should lead their lives in terms of their intrinsic qualities, their interests and their attributes. The tendency, nowadays, to put everyone into an ethnic slot, to make ‘ethnicity’ a primary consideration in defining people, is, it seems to me, impoverishing society in general. And it’s the surest way of increasing divisiveness and intolerance.