On Not Being Jewish

At school I was bullied for being Jewish. Sure, I didn’t have to put up with the animal noises that my father had to stomach at a minor boarding school in Hertfordshire in the 1960s. But ‘Jew’ or ‘Jew boy’, shied unimaginatively from close range, were part of the miserable package of taunts and torments which was assigned to me in my first term at public school and made my initial two years there into a lingering daily misery. It didn’t seem right to complain, except in roundabout ways: I remember, after a mild bout of conjunctivitis had cleared up, rubbing soil from a pot of hyacinths into my eyes before breakfast to guarantee an extension to my sick note.

As my summer tan began to sallow that autumn, one of my classmates idly drew attention to the pigmentation of my skin: it was yellow. And so, from that moment, ‘little yellow boy’ became as inescapably part of the timetable as the weekly swimming lessons I so dreaded. The tireless abuse was all verbal, though it sometimes made use of props: my most enduring memory from that time is of being confronted with a sniggering yellow wall when I stood to contribute to a class debate, as the entire class brandished jaundiced exercise books or foolscap folders in front of their faces. A boy who sat next to me in many lessons (since his name was alphabetically adjacent to mine) doodled ‘yellow boy’ or ‘Tom Marks is a little yellow boy’ or perhaps ‘Tom Marks is a little fucking yellow boy’ (the details fail me) in columns that burgeoned over any yellow stationery he could muster.

It never occurred to me to associate the intermittent anti-Semitic gibes with the insistent stigmatisation of the tone of my skin. I don’t suppose any of my classmates made a conscious connection either; a sizeable minority of those who declared my tint a taint were themselves Jewish. But thinking back, it’s hard not to detect a resonance, at best ironic and at worst institutional, between the abuse historically meted out through that colour and those ersatz yellow signs and basic caricatures that classmates drew of me on their sulphur-coloured file-dividers. No-one would have pinned a yellow star on my blazer, for sure. But it’s discomforting to infer that those boys, for the most part sons of successful professionals in London, were able to activate the chromatic memory of historical persecution without them or their target seeming to notice.

There was a shadow-history of prejudice at the school that belied the diversity of its intake and the ecumenical bluster of its assemblies. Isaiah Berlin, one of its most celebrated alumni, had severed links with the old boys’ society when a quota of Jewish pupils was allegedly introduced by the governors in the late 1950s. An old story circulated that a couple of decades previously, a boy – a Jewish boy – had been seriously injured after tumbling, for whatever reason, from a classroom window. In the late ’90s, when I was a pupil there, casual intolerance swamped the lower years (I know that I once blundered through what I deemed a joke about Persian carpets in a shamefully misguided ploy to put a debating opponent in his place). Many of the boys who, like me, were small and toadying and on the slow train to puberty, became the butt for any manner of bigotry. Boys could be boys, it seemed, so long as they kept the school bobbing proudly at the top of the academic league tables. 


At school I was bullied for being Jewish. I am not Jewish. Or at least I don’t think I’m Jewish. My father is Jewish but my mother is Catholic. My spirit was weaned – unsuccessfully – on the dreary liturgy and those stale communion wafers that you could mulch in the mouth, while feigning prayer, until the starch began to break down into sugar. But my not being Jewish didn’t seem to matter to the bullies: bullying never demands that the prejudice correspond to the prey. It pours its scorn doubly by mistaking identities. A half-Iranian friend, who went to a secondary school in the Midlands, recalls being known as ‘Jonny Jew’ during his time there. 

People ask whether I’m Jewish because they anticipate I will be; it’s a question expecting the answer yes and my answer is a shrouded maybe. To those who are looking, I look Jewish: my skin tans easily, my thick curly hair would happily droop, were it long enough, into ringlets, I have no foreskin, and my nose is pronounced, even ornithological. (At a university party, a boy once broke off conversing with my sister to curl his finger down the length of her nose. Something he’d always wanted to try, he said). My name is one of those emigrant noms de guerre, like Rose or Stone, which are as eloquent a marker of Ashkenazi origins as were the Eastern European names they first endeavoured to disguise.

My father is Jewish but my mother is Catholic. This is always the answer, immediately. How false its simplicity is: there’s the brazen fusion of ethnic and religious identities, the muffled allusion to the Judaic lore of the maternal line, the turn to others to define myself, and the weighting of religions like binaries (Catholicism – dogmatic, doctrinal – doesn’t do things by halves; Judaism, I think, participates far more willingly in the Venn diagrams of the self). Most disconcerting is that ‘but’. We often use ‘but’ when we mean a different conjunction; the word’s diminutive scale can easily cover up for lazy or brittle logic. Here though, it jolts me to realise that I’ve been using it defensively, in pre-emptive denial, in the hope that its linguistic nonchalance will satisfy my questioner.

School taught me that a callow, often inadvertent anti-Semitism sometimes tarries where it shouldn’t in this country; it’s usually not taken seriously because it seems like a sort of mutual persiflage that the British Jewry has earned through its assimilation. But I think it informs how I define or defend myself when I’m put on the spot, and not least because my being an in-betweener allows the acidic repartee to take place internally between different parts or versions of myself. 

I’m Jewish but my wife is Catholic. This is my father’s answer. I’ve inherited the impulse to make the gentle excuse that must be a legacy from his father, a man who edged away from his orthodox upbringing in East London and into a post-war version of Englishness. My grandfather felt embarrassed in the tasselled wool vest, the tzitzit, he wore each day beneath his uniform to school in Hackney; I suspect war and the navy played the role that the universities would for later generations, giving him space to take hold of his identity. When he married my grandmother, brought up in the more affluent surroundings of Highgate, they didn’t set up for family life in Golders Green or Hampstead but in Northwood, where their social life revolved not around the synagogue but the cricket club. When the time came for my father’s Bar Mitzvah, he didn’t have a Bar Mitzvah; he was confirmed in the Liberal Jewish Synagogue.

I will never be Jewish and I will never not be Jewish. My family’s secularized, apathetic Catholicism – we mark the big fixtures of the Christian calendar but none of us worship on them – leaves room to acknowledge, sometimes comically, how much of another tradition we’ve opted out of. On Christmas Eve, we feast on shellfish and the next day we squabble about the last sausage wrapped in bacon. My father goes to synagogue once a year when his father’s name is called out among the remembered dead. None of us mark Hanukkah or Rosh Hashanah, Passover or Yom Kippur, and I’d struggle to say when they fell were it not that someone will unfailingly offer me New Year greetings in September or early October each year. We overcompensate for not being what we aren’t: when I laid the three tiles of goy once, in a game of Scrabble, my father tried to disallow it.

I could wander much further in scratching this itch. I could wander back home and beyond, to my grandmother, and to the streets of Whitechapel where my grandfather’s ancestors had their homes. I am already a tourist at the Jewish sites of Europe and its fringes: at Shoah memorials, in the cemeteries, temples, ghettoes, museums, and restaurants. The tombs look like magnified herring roe in Fez, like chipped teeth in Prague. I got lost in the forests at Salaspils. In Paris, when the tour groups I lead shuffle into Notre Dame, I find a bench in its Eastern shadows, near the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation. And at the Tempio Maggiore in Rome, where the squared dome makes a unique stand against that city’s many rounded crowns, I once joined a tour myself and pinned the kippa in my hair; it slipped and fell and slipped again, until I held it to my skull to keep it in place.