Browse Topics

View all talks

(((David Aaronovitch)))

David AaronovitchFilmed at JDOV Live with the JC and JW3

(((David Aaronovitch)))

David Aaronovitch’s family were atheists and their faith was Marxism. At the same time, he knew he was “half Jewish”, but he didn’t know what this meant. All in all, he imagined his Jewishness to be like his Irishness - a story of the past, exotic but irrelevant. But in fact, it hasn’t been irrelevant, far from it. In this talk, David explains how, whilst he was happy to cherry-pick from this identity - if there was anything he particularly liked about his Jewish identity he would lay claim to it - there was one major problem: he could cherry-pick the Jewishness, but the anti-Semitism picked him.

David Aaronovitch is a well-known journalist, broadcaster, and author. He is a regular columnist for the Jewish Chronicle and The Times, and the author of three works of non-fiction. David’s latest book, ‘Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists’ was published in 2016.

Do Christians do this? “My Christian Dream.” Imagine five Methodists getting up one after the other and doing ten minutes of this stuff. It’s hard to imagine. I say that as somebody who was brought up amongst them, so to speak, even though my family were atheists and our faith was Marxism.

I learned to sing the Internationale at weekends and To Be A Pilgrim on weekends at school. “There’s no discouragement, shall make him once relent, his first avowed intent, to be a Pilgrim.” Now I have absolutely no idea whether that makes half of you hang out the garlic.

But that’s what I learned at Primary School, together with the Lord’s Prayer, which I can still recite.

At secondary school I stayed on in Christian assembly rather than go with the Jewish boys to Jewish assembly, because Christian assembly seemed to me to be much less of a religious choice. It was Anglicanism so this wasn’t a ridiculous thought.

I knew from early on that I was half-Jewish. That’s what we were told. All in all I imagined my Jewishness to be like my Irishness. “O’ronovitch” was actually a fantasy that I had when I was in hospital. And my mother’s side did have a connection, she always told us, with the Fitzgeralds of Leinster, which is a shtetl somewhere in Ireland – look it up. In other words, it was a story of the past, exotic, fun but irrelevant. It was nice to be able to say to primary school friends that I was half Jewish, but I hadn’t the faintest idea what it meant.

It originated, I knew, in the East End, I knew that much. In poverty, I knew that too. Not the relative poverty of today, but the absolute, ‘will we have anything to eat’ poverty, ‘has my father got a job’ poverty, of the interwar years. They’d lived on Cable Street – my dad was actually born on Cable Street – and my father, Sam, had been a runner for the opposition to Mosley at the famous battle that we’ve just celebrated the 80th anniversary of in 1936.

My grandfather, Morris Aaronovitch, was dead two years by the time I was born. Morris is my middle name. My grandmother, whose name I wasn’t sure of at that stage, lived in a flat in Upper Clapton where we visited her once a month or so. She had papery skin, she wore a flowered smock, a headscarf – and so therefore probably wouldn’t count as being sufficiently British by French standards – and spoke Yiddish, but rarely put her teeth in, so we actually had no idea what language she was speaking. Seriously, had no idea, had no idea….and I couldn’t tell what it was. And I just thought she couldn’t speak English very well, in fact she was speaking Yiddish. She gave us matzohs when we came round, which we thought were jumbo versions of Jacob’s Cream Crackers – seriously, that’s what we thought, had no idea they had any kind of ritual importance. And actually come to think of it, Jacob, that’s a Jewish name. So maybe he got the idea for Cream Crackers from matzohs and it was just a kind of simple lift. The other thing she would do is that she would pinch our cheeks with her bony fingers, which was extremely unpleasant, but which I now gather is a kind of reasonable trait of Jewish grandmothers.

So for us no shul, no synagogue, no Friday nights, no Adonais and no Amens. No kopels and no rabbis. I had no idea that baigels (or bygels as my father liked to call them, and that actually is the proper pronunciation of the word, is bygels, any old East Ender will tell you), I had no idea they were any more Jewish than bacon sandwiches (which incidentally he also loved). Challah, I knew, was a kind of Jewish bread like a baguette was a French bread. OK so you would go down and get a challah, or you would get a baguette in much the same kind of way. A bit later I had a rough idea because I met boys who were it, what “kosher” was, though it seemed to me then as pedantic as veganism. Actually less comprehensible in some ways, actually it is less comprehensible. And later still I understood that my dad’s penchant for cream cheese and salt beef was an indulgence in the almost impossible delicacies of his impoverished youth. Those were the things he couldn’t afford back then, and later on he could and that’s why we got them.

We never once, never once, kept a Jewish holiday, and it’s only now that I know what the main Jewish celebrations are, even if there are still a confusion in my mind of herbs, and exiles and biblical characters. I can’t, to this day, tell you exactly who did what to whom in order for this holiday to happen and so on. And I’m not belittling it, I’m just telling you I didn’t know and I can’t quite keep it all in my head.

But all this time, my Uncle Joe, my father’s much older brother – who we saw on Boxing Day each year – and it never even occurred to me to ask why we didn’t see him on Christmas Day – was, unbeknownst to me, being observant, perfectly observant – in far-off Ilford (which is a place Jews used to live before Columbus discovered Hertfordshire). He’d changed his name to Arnold and called his children Gary and Marilyn. So here am I, David Aaronovitch, never had a Friday night, and there’s Gary and Marilyn Arnold who were as Jewish as anybody, it’s absurd.

In the weekend in 1990 that my oldest daughter Rosa was born, my Uncle Joe died. This was unexpected because he’d seemed indestructible. At the age of 84 he was a volunteer for the Jewish old people, and I don’t mean by that he was volunteering to be a Jewish old person, I mean he volunteered to help Jewish old people out, never once thinking that he was actually pretty old. So she was born, he died, and I thought, one out, one in, that’s how life is. Anyway, I drove out to Ilford with my dad at his request. And anyway, there in the front room of a small semi detached house in the land of cab drivers, I saw him put on a kopel – and I put on one too for the first time – and then, I have it absolutely fixed in my memory’s eye, he went to the corner and he picked up a book of a kind that I had never seen before in my life, and he started to speak in Hebrew, say the words in Hebrew, a language I had never ever heard. In other words, he was saying the words that he’d last said when he was a teenager, possibly even younger than that since he was rebellious. Can you picture that? I mean what a strange thing that would be. And all this time, he could have remembered the words, he could even have told us that he knew what these words were. And he never said it.

So later I asked him why he had sloughed off all the observance and the religion – actually the memory of the observance and the religion – to the extent of never, ever talking about them. Hadn’t even told us that the language that his mother, my grandmother, was speaking was Yiddish.

And this is roughly what he said. He said that when his father, who was a second hand clothes repairer, used to negotiate the prices on the remade button holes that he made on old coats – which was the job that he had, second hand clothes repairer was his job. When I found my uncle’s birth certificate actually in the MI5 files when I saw them a few weeks ago, my grandfather had signed the birth certificate with ‘Morris Aaronovitch X’ – his mark, so he’d been illiterate, he’d had nothing very much going for him at all.

And so when my father went with my grandfather to have this negotiation, what he said was, it was the rich Jews with the fur on their collars who were beating his father down on the price they’d pay for the clothes he repaired. Willing him into poverty on the one hand, my father said, and then giving to Jewish charity to bail him out on the other.

Much later still, researching for a book, I came across something my dad had written in the 50s, looking back. He was recalling being in an East End library and watching Jewish parents pushing their kids to learn, which is obviously something that the community prides itself on and I think rightly. The kids, he wrote, were being – and this was his phrase – sacrificed on the shrine of “naches”. I looked it up. It means, as some of you know, “pride” or “joy”. So his rejection had been total, because what he was saying was that this was false pride and false joy, which ended up sacrificing your children like Avraham had sacrificed his son, or would have done, so the shrine of nachas was the stone. So the very things that more usual Jews, I imagine, thought were good, he had come to think were bad.

I didn’t know that when I was a kid. I was half-Jewish and that was that. And of course, then I grew older, again not knowing any of this and people asked me about the name. And what I discovered was that I could now cherry-pick a Jewish identity. If there was anything particularly I liked about Jewishness, I could just lay claim to it, I could just have it. OK?

So the obvious example was humour. And with a name like Aaronovitch, I was obviously allowed to tell Jewish jokes. Like the one about the elderly couple, late 80s, go to their rabbi, tell him they want a divorce. A divorce, he says, why now? Because, they told him, we wanted to wait until the kids were dead. Try telling that if your surname is Baker. Two yentas, one says to the other, you look incredible and her friend says, yes, you want to know the reason? I’m having an affair. An affair says her friend, how wonderful! Who’s doing the catering? Try telling that with a name like Smith. I could just have it.

I mean these are fantastic jokes, they’re the best jokes in the world. And who wouldn’t want the right to tell jokes like that? And, in such a voice. You can hear it, can you hear it, in my voice? My father’s voice, which is still now, in a modified form, my voice. Just a little bit further down, a little bit kind of more middle class and so on. I can hear his voice in the old films and comedies starring Alfie Bass, Sydney Tafler, Harry Landis, Miriam Karlin – the cadences I should think of Yiddish turned into Cockney, of Hyman Kaplan in the land of Stanley Holloway, if you like. The same thing happened in New York and produced Jackie Mason. It’s music to me.

Was that somehow passed on, without anyone noticing? The cadence, the particular humour? Did I kind of pick it up from him, that appreciation, or was it just available to everybody at all times? But anyway, it’s warm water in which to bathe, and who wouldn’t want it?

But there was, of course, one drawback, and you’ll all have guessed what it was. I could cherry-pick the Jewishness, but the anti-Semitism cherry-picked me. Not “I’ll kill you Jewboy” type anti-Semitism, but the sort of lazy and constant myriad assumptions and attributions that a majority can make about a minority of whom it feels nervous or envious.

It first really cropped up for me when I was 24. I was National Secretary of the National Union of Students and we were having a big problem with the goons that Saddam Hussein’s regime had sent to Britain to police Iraqi students, most of them engineers and so on who had come to British universities. So when this got too much, we took the decision at the National Union of Students that we would “derecognise” the National Union of Iraqi Students, the official Iraqi students’ organisation. And I was National Secretary of the National Union of Students, so it was my job to do it and send out the thing saying that we were derecognizing.. I’m not even really sure I knew what derecognition meant. It’s one of those things that you kind of do at that age, it just meant ‘we’re cross with you.’

Within weeks, a two-sided document was circulated to every student union in Britain. On one side, was a facsimile of a letter purportedly sent to me by the National Industrial Organiser at the Communist Party, a chap called Bert Ramelson, who’d also originally been Jewish, he’d been an international brigadier, and a Canadian and so on. And it was to say, what amazing work you’re doing, well done, David, against Saddam Hussein.

And on the other side, was another letter, and this one purported to be from an Avi Kushner-Nir, Counselor at the Israeli Embassy.

And this also said, David, well done, keeping up the argument against Saddam Hussein and these terrible Arabic people etc.

Now I did have plenty of contact with the Communist party, enough to know that Bert Ramelson had ceased being its Industrial Organiser a few months earlier. But I had absolutely none at all with the Israeli Embassy.

But there it was. It was a crude forgery, but the forgery had a purpose. Name equals Jew. Bolshevik Jew. Jew equals tribal conspiracy. But what amazed me was how many ordinary political British students thought all this was possible. They actually bought it to an extent. Jews presumably, in their minds, being what Jews are. Since then it, or something like it, has happened over and over again.

You remember that thing from the Godfather – “just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Sometimes in tiny ways: the woman at the Hay-on-Wye festival who accosted me, and confusing me with a writer with a completely different Jewish name, told me indignantly that she was not, as I had suggested in several of my articles, anti-Semitic. I had never written those articles. Or even, in a much nicer way, the newspaper colleague who was amazed to discover that my view of the Iraqi invasion was not coloured by my deep, Jewish-induced loyalty to Israel, a loyalty that I had never had and was no part of my upbringing. All he’d had was the name.

And since the advent of social media, we have some bigger ones. Jew equals Zionist and Zionist equals all the things anti-Semites used to say about Jews. Unless, of course, you’re the right kind of Jew, in which case you’re alright and they won’t be saying those things about you, and you had to kind of pay a price to get to that point.

But then the other way you get pulled back in again. After I’d written in the Guardian about the woman in Hay the then editor of the Jewish Chronicle, the marvelous Ned Temko, asked me to write for him too. I told him what I’ve told you. That I didn’t know my Sukkot from my Purim, and he said he didn’t care. If I was Jewish enough for the Nazis, I was Jewish enough for him, he said. And then said mine is, after all, just another kind of Jewish tale.

Since then I’ve been adopted by the more tolerant elements in the Jewish community. I’ve spoken at shul benefit nights. At a Masorti event – I enjoyed that, the organizer of that said… I said, what’s Masorti? And he said, well, he said, I’m an atheist too, he said, but I just like all the traditions. And I thought, well that’s like Christmas then really, that’s essentially what that’s about.

I’ve been to Jewish Question Times. That’s when Jews ask questions, not when it’s time to ask the Jewish Question; I don’t like people who ask the Jewish question. And in fact I’m actually not keen on people who say there is a Jewish question. Then there are the bat and bar mitzvahs, the best of which are marvels of love and organisation.

So there’s been a lot to like. Some things to like less. I have a deep ambivalence about rabbis, I do, and homiletics – I can’t stand homiletics. I can’t stand people saying, “and here’s a little story that I’ve just made up which illustrates the very point that I wanted to make”. Too convenient. I’ve seen columnists do this and rabbis get away with it all the time.

Jews sit through interminable services, I mean literally interminable services, whereas Christians tend to get those over and done with fairly quickly. Your hymns are unsingable, just completely unsingable, in an impossible language that you then complain about people not learning. Hungarians don’t do that with their language, by the way.

There’s the, to me, bewildering lack of logic behind circumcision. Why make that your covenant? Since it automatically leaves out half the population. And there is to me – and I don’t want to be offensive at all, I’m just telling you the truth – a Freudian problematic to the avidity with which some Jewish women take a knife to their sons. You don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to think that there’s something about that.

And try explaining an eruv to your Welsh (quasi Baptist) wife, who knows that if there IS a Great Redeemer and he’s not to be cheated by a length of wire.

Also, some Jews are not so clever or not so nice. You say, look at how many Jews won Nobel prizes and I say, yes, but on the other hand look at how many support Arsenal. You say, Julia Neuberger and I say Richard Desmond. People are people.

As you may gather, I am not a mystic, I’m a materialist. And when I hear the word spiritual I reach for my Dawkins. But I’m not stupid, I’m not completely stupid either. I’m not immune to that pull.

So the next bit, therefore, that I’m going to say, the last bit, makes me very suspicious of myself, even though it’s true. In 1998, my father Sam died and we held his funeral in the usual place, Golders Green etc, everybody’s there. We sang the Internationale:

“Then comrades come rally and the last fight let us face. The Inernationale unites the human race.”

And then, the son of one of his oldest friends in the Communist Party, a man himself dead, but the boy had discovered, re-discovered his Judaism and become a cantor, of all things. And -my father had agreed this, obviously before he died – he then, at the end, sang the Prayer for the Dead. And his voice was extraordinarily loud, but it wasn’t a loud voice in a raucous sense, it was absolutely true and transcendently beautiful. I mean, anybody who was there will remind it. El Maleh Rachamim. And the way in which I felt about it – I couldn’t help feeling about this, for everything I’ve said – was, I’m somehow here now, the latest link in a chain that went back maybe three millennia, with the singing of this song, with the saying of this prayer.

There’s a thing. Marxism was dead and Judaism had, unaccountably, survived. The words that had been sung at my grandfather’s funeral and his grandmother’s funeral and back and back and back and back, were sung again.

Just this morning, I interviewed the German artist Anselm Kiefer for The Times. And I asked him whether or not his paintings weren’t haunted, in this case haunted by the Holocaust. Not haunted, he said, those aren’t ghosts, those are memories.

So is a dream a memory? If not, I don’t know what a Jewish dream is, unless it’s a dream dreamt by a Jew. But I may, or people like us may, have been dreamed by the Jews who came before us. Our grandmothers perhaps, wondering what would happen to their progeny in this strange land of Britain where, Mosley apart, they couldn’t even be bothered to hate us properly. Were they, our grandmothers, imagining us, did they have a dream about us? A Jewish Dream. In other words, I may not have a Jewish dream, but as my daughter said to me when she made an excuse for not being able to come this evening, Dad, she said, you are a Jewish dream.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License

Share This