in the garden


Oct 2007 Journal

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Point of View series: Too few Jews

I read the other day that the last census counted 270,000 Jews in this country. Is that all? But then these are self-declared, tick-box Jews and one wonders about the psychology of self-definition. Are they the sons and daughters of Jewish mothers? What about half-Jews and their offspring? What about closet Jews? No one knows the answers. Is there a better way of counting who should be in and who out?

We lack a universally accepted definition. And the task is not made easier by progressive dilution. My granddaughter admits to being a quarter Jewish, a quarter closet Catholic, 50 per cent Brazilian, and 6 per cent Romanian. I know this adds up to more than 100 per cent but then so does my granddaughter. Plus she travels on an Australian passport and works in New York.

At least we don’t lose many through conversion. Heine spotted why not when he said that a Jew could hardly be expected to believe in the divinity of another Jew.

There is no scientific test for proving one is a Jew. According to Shakespeare, if you prick us, we bleed - yet a blood test won’t reveal a thing. If you are male, circumcised, read the Jewish Chronicle and manage a hedge fund, it creates a presumption, but no more. You could still be a member of the BNP.

The absence of certainty gives rise to the Reverse Presumption: if someone is special, the odds are they must be Jewish. The landscape is strewn with victims of that endearing conceit: Hollywood affords two notorious examples - Chaplin and Disney. The former became resigned to being labelled a closet Jew; the latter, a bog-standard antisemite, fought the slur to his dying day.

The task would be easier if the community were more structured and we had a proper class system, an aristocracy, with all the ingredients of a layer cake. We have a meritocracy instead: Prince Albert (Einstein), the Duchess of Newburgh (aka Dame Julia Neuberger), assorted lordships, knights and a nosegay of Jewish princesses notwithstanding, the rabbi is still top dog - scholar, healer, arbiter in one.

Secularisation splits these functions among scientist, doctor, lawyer. All of them rank above the billionaire businessman. A proper Jewish mother would rather her son were a dental surgeon than a millionaire, although the two combine nicely. Yet Jews have always been honoured more readily for lending money than for lending a hand to make the world a better place.

Artists are outside the pecking order. But they rank high. Note how many Jews crowd the intersection of art and commerce. Nearly-artists often end up as art’s entrepreneurs: publishers (a refugee speciality), producers, gallery owners, impresarios, artists’ agents, plastic surgeons - anything with a whiff of the Muses about it.

As a refugee, I have found standing outside the English class system quite useful. For example, it has allowed me to talk tough with the unions. Being identifiable neither as traitor to the working class nor as upper-class twit, I was able to dispense home truths which no Englishman would have dared utter.

My father had a good definition of Jewish class: if you were born where your grandfather was born, you were upper-class; if you were born where your father was born, you were middle-class, and if you were starting in a new country, you were back at the bottom of the heap. He came to this country with very little English and managed to acquire a wonderful command of the language, translating his beloved Goethe better than many a published version I have seen. He also wrote a short biography of my Romanian grandmother, calling it The Rubayat of Oma Kahane.

So how do we discover how many of us there are if we can’t agree on who we are? Do we go by religion, self-belief, ethnicity (ghastly word, ghastly thought), tribal feeling? Do two half-Jews count as one whole Jew, with bonus points for fasting on Yom Kippur? Perhaps we are not meant to be counted. We are the chosen people - that’s what counts.


Victor Ross

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