(THE JEWISH CHRONICLE)
January 2, 2004
Written by ELIZABETH LUARD
Every now and then, a book is published which reveals something so blindingly obvious you can1t imagine why no one has ever pointed it out before. One such, recently published in America, is Brooke Kroeger’s”Passing,” an exploration of what happens when people know who they are but find it easier (or more advantageous or because of the need for protective colouring) to pretend they’re something else. If geneticists can trace the world1s lineage back to seven daughters of Eve, a wise child has no need to know his own father ; all he requires is a single cell.
In my case, it was my father-in-law who first told me who I am. “Tell me, Elisabeth,”2 he inquired the day we first met. “Did you have much trouble at school being Jewish?”
The occasion, lunch at the Savoy to celebrate my engagement to his eldest son. The outcome, revelation. Neither I nor my intended — satirist, friend of Lenny Bruce, and (at the time) owner of Private Eye — had ever questioned each others’ religious or ethnic background. Both of us understood ourselves as of mongrel stock: Nicholas of Scottish and Huguenot descent, while I am a Scot on one side and undiluted Jew on distaff. Which makes me — well, what my mother never wanted me to be.
The grill-room at the Savoy was familiar territory since I often lunched there with my maternal grandparents. The maître d’ greeted me, as always, by the name by which he knew me: Mademoiselle Baron. Baron, as it happened, is my mother1s surname, my middle name, retained after my marriage and used by me in an early career as a botanical painter. Though I knew it as the name of my maternal grandparents, I later learned that it was Bertha, my grandmother, who was the Baron, heiress to a tobacco fortune — Carreras, makers among other brands of Craven A. My grandfather, born Edward Levy, was a nephew who changed his name to please the patriarch, my great-grandfather, the founder of the business which supported the dynasty. My grandmother was 15 (or possibly 14) when they married — the sooner the better if the fortune was to be kept in the family.
“Trouble?” I repeated hesitantly, as well I might. Not yet 21, deeply in love, I had no wish to lose my in-law’s good opinion.
Brought up in my father’s faith, a much-decorated airman who died in the cold waters of the Atlantic in 1943, the question stopped me in my tracks. There being nothing obviously Jewish about my name or habits, this was the first time I had encountered an assumption of otherness.
“Not really,” I answered cautiously. “It wasn’t an issue.”
Please? My prospective father-in-law raised his hands, palms outward. “I have nothing against the Jews. Fine people, I’m told.”
I leaned forward. “You don’t mean that,” I said sweetly. “You think all Jews have curly hair, hooked noses and are greedy with money.”
My words came as a shock — to both of us. To me because I had no notion I felt so strongly about something my mother told me was no concern of mine. To my father-in-law, no doubt, because it confirmed what he already knew: the woman his son seemed hell-bent on making his wife might not look like a Jew, might not pray like a Jew, but, as sure as the Lord made little green apples, a Jew was what she was.
Most of us have something in our genetic inheritance we need to resolve. I have something in my genetic inheritance of which I am deeply proud but which, because of family circumstance, I was always expected to deny. Let me explain about my maternal grandparents. To a young girl raised as a stepchild in a family which disapproved of luxury, with paternal grandparents who spread their morning toast with marmalade or butter but never both, they were wonderfully — brilliantly, extravagantly — rich and glamorous. They entertained in beautiful town and country houses where the rich and famous gathered, among them the Prince of Wales, and Mrs Simpson, too. They dressed in exquisite clothes and ate wonderful food cooked by real French chefs.
My grandfather was a gambler, working his way through the family fortune on the race-track at Ascot and the casino at Deauville, losing at bridge in Berkeley Square. My grandmother had her clothes made in Paris — Schiaparelli, Worth, Dior, Balenciaga — her gloves came from Florence, her shoes were made in Rome and her underwear was stitched by Irish nuns. At home in Belgrave Square, she employed a pastry-chef and a lady1s maid, and my grand-father never travelled without his valet.
Because my father was dead and my mother had married again — a career diplomat, second son of a country estate in need of restoration and Baron money — a new young family followed soon after, and my brother and I were left to our own devices. For my brother, an expensive school in Switzerland; for me, a dismal ladies’ academy in the Malvern hills, which, to my delight, allowed me to spend much of the school holidays with my maternal grandparents.
I would join them in my scratchy brown school-uniform — soon changed for something more acceptable — wherever they found themselves on their fashionable perigrinations: St Moritz for the snow, Marienbad and Mont-ecatini for the waters, Eugenie-les-Bains for the first stirrings of nouvelle cuisine, at the time, a slimming regime for my grandfather and an encouragement to me to lose the puppy-fat which might prevent me squeezing into the end-of-season catwalk-clothes my grandmother couldn1t resist.
At Easter, I joined them in Venice for the treasures of the Doges, the comforts of the Cipriani and the gastronomic joys of Harry’s Bar. Summers were spent in Monte Carlo for the sunshine and the Salle Privee; days were spent at the Lido or on one of the huge white yachts which belonged to the Greeks ‹ Onassis, Niarchos. The evening brought a drift to the gaming tables where the food and drink were delicious and free, though I would slip away to my bed, only to be awoken at dawn and dispatched, on my grandmother1s instruction, down the tunnel which links the Hotel de Paris with the Casino to persuade my grandfather to abandon his nightly love-affair with Lady Luck, learning, along the way, that the double-zero ruins the odds in roulette, the only gambling wisdom I’ve ever needed.
During these youthful wanderings, I acquired a taste for luxury which has never left me. This, too, was part of the essence of who I was not, you understand, that I couldn1t do without these things; simply that I adored the feel of real linen on the bed, cashmere and silk worn next to the skin, the softness of calfskin shoes, the taste of bitter chocolate and the scent of vanilla scraped from the pod.
I returned to the regime of school-dinners with a hamper of French pastries which, even when I shared them, earned me the disapproval of my pony-clubbing schoolmates. The English, I realised, did not approve of foreignness in any form, and I learned to keep my glamorous wanderings to myself. I knew all about the Jewishness of my inheritance — how could I not? — and would often, when my grandmother was elsewhere, accompany my grandfather to the Liberal Synagogue, or take lunch with Basil Henriques, the kindly and liberal-minded gentleman who performed the ceremony which joined my Christian father to my Jewish mother.
So far, so easy. And then I was married and had children. Married life and a novelist-husband allowed me to be as foreign as I pleased. I took my young family to be raised in Spain, a land (and language) with which I was already familiar from my early childhood, where I knew that children, in contrast to my experience of Anglo-Saxon lands, would be loved and welcomed.
And when, a few years on, it came to my attention that my younger half-brother was explaining to his English public-schoolmates that the reason his mother was dusky-skinned and curved of nose was that she was half-Mexican — my stepfather’s diplomatic posting at the time — I decided to set my sibling family straight.
“We are, all four of us,” I announced at a rare family dinner, “entirely Jewish on our mother1s side.” Which makes us, should we so wish, able to claim Jewishness as our birthright, just as we had all enjoyed the advantages of fortune, product of a trust established by Bern-ard Baron, patriarch and philanthropist, a benefactor, it must be added, of many non-Jewish charities as well as his own pet project, the Bernard Baron Settlements in London’s East End.
This, I explained with eloquence and a degree, admittedly, of intemperance, was a bloodline not to be denied, one in which we might all take pride. I forebore to labour the money — no need, the evidence was all around. My passion fell on deaf ears. To this day, I am the only Jewish member of my family.
So we passed because we could. Because it was easier, or because of the dilution of the blood — every one of us has married “out” — but mainly because of what lay behind that first encounter with my father-in-law, a subtle suggestion of not-quite-right.
I still feel the strength of it, setting it against the delight I take in what I see as my Jewish inheritance — dark, curly hair, a skin which tans easily, an appetite for learning, a native intelligence unquenchable by English schooling, a need to improve the world — and I can see the dismay it brings when I insist on its acknowledgment.
Which brings me back ( bet you thought we1d never get there) to Brooke Kroeger and her identification of a situation I recognise all too well. Intelligent and highly readable, Ms Kroeger is an experienced biographer and associate professor of journalism at NYU. “Passing” examines the ruses and reasons behind the need many of us feel to present ourselves as something other than we are.
Based on interviews and personal experience with six people who “pass” — gay and Jewish for Jewish and straight (a rabbi, as it happens), white and a teacher for black and street-credible (an un-usual reversal in the Deep South), poor and Puerto Rican for Jewish and moneyed. There is also, delightfully, a touch of genuine eccentricity in a distinguished poet (middle-aged, male) whose alter-ego is an equally admired, off-the-wall (teenage, female) contributor to on-line fanzines.
Actually, four of the interviewees have a Jewish connection, though this may well be because Jewishness encourages self-awareness, which leads to the analyst’s couch, which provides the raw material for the books that analysts write. This, the serious business, is well-covered by the provision of historical contexts, literary references, 40 pages of footnotes and scholarly bibliography.
Whatever the reasons for pretending to be something other than we are — a central theme, too, of Philip Roth1s “The Human Stain,” which has now been made into a film — it’s a problem, the kind of problem which needs to be given a good shake-up and dusting-down if humanity is ever to rid itself of all the stuff which, eventually, sometimes all too rapidly, can lead to the gas ovens. Which brings us to Ms Kroeger’s wise conclusion: yielding to pressure to conform for whatever reason ‹ whether the context be religious, social or professional ‹ does none of us any good.
My feelings exactly.
Elisabeth Luard’s books include “Family Life.” “Passing: When People Can’t
Be Who They Are,” by Brooke Kroeger, is published by Public Affairs in the
United States at $25. The film of “The Human Stain,” starring Anthony
Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, is due for release later this month.
Video, event summaries from recent talks in Reports from the Road.
2021 Events: “The Branded Journalist: Nellie Bly Changes the Game.” [VIDEO of TALK] Ephemera Society of America, Jan. 14, 2020, 3pm. Nellie Bly: Pioneer of Investigative Journalism.” American Woman Writers National Museum, March 10, 2021, at noon. Empire State Center for the Book, March 18, 2021, 7pm.