In my youth—I was born in 1935—every self-respecting Jewish family in England had at least one Uncle Morrie. My own family was no exception, but then it would have been very surprising if it had been. We were mainstream Jews; my father, who had immigrated from Eastern Europe in 1913, when he himself was around bar-mitzvah age, was a doctor who practiced in London’s East End, the center of the city’s Jewish population before rising fortunes allowed a movement outward first to north London and then to the sunny suburban uplands of Golders Green, Hendon, and beyond.

When it came to Uncle Morries, we in fact boasted not one but three, and among them they covered a nice span of Jewish possibilities. One—he was actually a great-uncle—was a minor official of the United Synagogue, the association of Orthodox congregations in London, with a beaming countenance and a set of well-tried jocular catch-phrases: at family gatherings, there usually came a point when he would turn to the table where the food was spread out and say, “Now where are the doings?” Another, also a great-uncle, was the oldest of the family’s Communists. As a schoolboy I once tried to get a rise out of him by telling him that I had heard that there was a particularly good book about the French Revolution by Edmund Burke. He immediately shot back, “Edmund Burke called working people ‘the swinish multitude,’ and that’s all I need to know about him.” Since my own knowledge of Burke at the time was virtually nonexistent, I was completely floored.

The Uncle Morrie who meant the most to me was a real uncle, my father’s younger brother. Partly I was impressed by him because he had a striking physical presence: he was unusually tall, much taller than anyone else in the family, with a long strong face to match. He also seemed to me to have style. Possibly this did not mean much more, in my boyish view of things, than the fact that he was rumored to have always taken taxis (which I had been brought up to consider a luxury), even in the days when he couldn’t afford them, and that, by the time I knew him, he and his family lived in a smart flat near Regent’s Park. But he was undoubtedly intelligent and independent-minded as well, and he had been determined from early on to get away from the more constricting aspects of family life.

One route he took was to Anglicize himself, more than anyone else in my father’s fairly traditional family. He changed the spelling of his name to Grose, because it was more English; he sent his daughter, who was about my age, to Bedales, a boarding school in Hampshire. But at the same time he was quite assertive about being Jewish, especially in the face of rising anti-Semitism, and he also responded strongly to the attraction of Zionism. It was his Zionist impulse that eventually won out.

He was an accountant by profession, and around 1930 he had gone to Palestine to work for the Palestine Electric Corporation. The founder and manager of the corporation, Pinhas Rutenberg, was one of the most interesting personalities involved in building up the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine. An engineer, Rutenberg had also been a leading member of the Russian Socialist Revolutionary party; as a minister in the short-lived Menshevik-dominated government in 1917, he had consistently advocated taking whatever measures were needed to head off Lenin. In Palestine, Rutenberg’s work on hydroelectric power, beginning in the early 20’s, had helped to transform the economy. He developed political ambitions there, too, in which he was less successful; but my uncle greatly admired the technocratic, businesslike side of his character.



While in Palestine my uncle got married. His wife came from a well-known family, originally from the Polish town of Bialystok, and considerably higher up the social scale than ours, as we were more than once reminded. She was a trim, petite woman; my uncle towered over her, and I am told that in the early days of their marriage they were known as the lulav and the esrog (the tall palm branch and the small citron carried by Jews on the festival of Tabernacles).

Toward the end of the 30’s Morrie returned to London with his family. I didn’t see much of them on account of the war, and after the war they went back to what was soon to be the state of Israel. My uncle did not have any links with the Labor party, which was the dominant force in Israeli politics at the time, but he eventually found a niche as secretary of the Chamber of Commerce in Haifa. When I stayed with him on my first visit to Israel, in 1953, he seemed to be engaged in daily battles with the leader of the local dock-workers’ union. He was also ill, and he died a few years later, still in his forties.

My father was fond of him. So was my mother; and they both respected him. We were close, in other words, to someone who had chosen to live his life in Israel. Did it not follow that we felt close to Israel itself? Would we not have felt close to it anyway?

These are questions I find it impossible to answer with a straight yes or no. As a Jewish enterprise, the Yishuv was something my family had long wished well. As a refuge for Jewish victims of persecution, it was something they had naturally supported. The Jewish resettlement of Palestine had been brought home to them in many different ways, both private and public. But it had never been a central part of their existence: they certainly were not anti-Zionist, but they were not Zionists, either.

That much is what I was told, or what I deduced. By the time I had a clearer picture of what was happening, after 1946 or so, their attitude had begun to change. The period leading up to the establishment of Israel brought new emotions into play—anxiety, anger, admiration—or at any rate greatly heightened old ones. These feelings were inevitably colored by the revelations, still very recent, of what had happened during the war; the whole situation was also rendered more painful by what everyone perceived as the clear pro-Arab, anti-Jewish bias of the British government under Clement Attlee. The role played by the foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, was particularly troublesome.

Under other circumstances, Bevin would have been a hero to many Jews—for his achievements as minister of labor during the war, and indeed for his general performance as foreign secretary. As it was, however, nothing did more to produce a closing of ranks than his notorious remark that “Jews must not try to get to the head of the queue.” He was talking about restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine. Not only was the remark made in the context of concentration-camp survivors and displaced persons; it was also, so to speak, unnecessary. Realpolitik alone would not have dictated it; indeed, realpolitik left to itself would probably have shed a few crocodile tears. It felt like an emanation of pure prejudice.

When Israel became an independent state in May 1948, we joined in the general rejoicing. (In a fairly sedate fashion, however: Lou and Harry, the boys next door, stayed up most of the night celebrating with friends; we went over to have a drink with them.) Immediately after that, euphoria gave way to apprehension about the outcome of the Arab-Israeli war; and after that, there were excitements, good moments, bad moments, and readjustments. For a year or two, the sense of sheer novelty was still strong. I can recall the thrill we got from driving over to see the building that housed the first Israeli embassy, hard by the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square. Everyone was proud, too, that the first ambassador, Mordecai Eliash, was both distinguished and distinguished-looking. And then, Jews being Jews, there were the inevitable jokes. I quote one, purely for its period flavor: “A miracle! For the first time in 2000 years, Jews are driving their own trains!”

Israel was now a fact of life (except for those who wanted to destroy it). For Jews, or most Jews, it was a large fact. Before Israel became a state, my parents had not, as far as I know, contributed to the Jewish National Fund. They now made an annual donation to its much more streamlined fund-raising successor. Yet the change was only relative. For all its importance, Israel was not at the heart of their concerns, any more than the Yishuv had been. They never saw their future, or that of their children, as lying anywhere but in England.

My own enthusiasm for the new state was stronger than theirs. I was young, I was under the influence of contemporaries, I wanted to see the country for myself. I sometimes wondered, too, about going to live there. But only fitfully; and when I encountered genuine, 100-percent Zionists—people who had settled in Israel, or were planning to—I often found myself backing away from their rigidity and dogmatism, from the demands they laid on me as a potential recruit. I was even slightly put out by the fact that the textbook from which I tried, not very successfully, to learn modern Hebrew was called Hebrew for All in English, but Ivri, I’mad ivrit!—“Hebrew, Learn Hebrew!,” which sounded so very much more peremptory—in Hebrew itself. (The author of the book, who ran a couple of summer schools I attended, was anything but peremptory in person. He was an affable Scottish schoolteacher with a strong Glaswegian accent and a fondness for the essays of Charles Lamb.)

At the same time, I recognized that states are only likely to be built by men and women who make hard demands, both on themselves and on others; and I was equally troubled by the apparently iron logic of Arthur Koestler, who began arguing in this period that, now that Jews had their own state, they were faced with a simple choice. If they wanted to remain Jews, they should go to Israel; otherwise they should forget the whole thing. The only reply I could think of was that life wasn’t like that, that people are inconsistent. And so it has proved in the case of Israel and the Jews. But I must admit that Koestler’s argument can still ruffle me. At the Passover service, which ends with the prayer “Next year in Jerusalem,” I have sometimes imagined his ghost looking down and asking, “Why pray, when you can buy a ticket from El Al?”

My first visit to Israel took place, as I have said, in 1953, when I was eighteen. My parents saw me off at the station (in those days, you went by train and boat), and just before we said goodbye I had the distinct impression that my father wanted to say to me, “Don’t stay there. Be sure to come back.” In the event, he need not have worried. The visit was a success. My commitment to Israel was strengthened. I met some admirable people, and had some stirring experiences. But I came back.



The troubles in Palestine produced smaller troubles in Britain. Much smaller, but disagreeable enough.

I remember all too clearly one summer morning in 1947, when I was twelve, picking up the morning paper and seeing a picture on the front page of two British sergeants who had been hanged in an orange grove by the Irgun, the armed underground organization led by Menachem Begin, as a reprisal for the execution of three of its members. That episode provoked several days of anti-Jewish disturbances in London and the provinces. And there were lesser incidents that still sowed ample ill feeling, such as the notorious statement by the pro-Irgun Hollywood writer Ben Hecht that every time a British soldier was killed in Palestine there was a-song in his heart. (“What made him say it?” my father wanted to know. “What good did he think it would do?”)

Those were difficult times for British Jews. The great majority of them condemned the killing of the sergeants. Most of them, if pressed, would have agreed that an angry public reaction was inevitable, that it would have been inevitable anywhere. But in practice it was often hard to say where inevitable outrage ended and anti-Semitism began. Feelings were tense. Hostility came out into the open.

I can recall witnessing one incident myself. A few of us were fooling around on the edge of a playing field. There had been some talk about Palestine; then a non-Jewish boy suddenly pinned a Jewish boy down and said to him, “You killed Christ.” It was the first time I had heard those words uttered, and I was not so much afraid—the victim threw off his tormentor, and there was no further rough-housing—as incredulous. (The scholar Erich Heller, who was much more genial in person than one might suppose from reading such austere books as The Disinherited Mind, once told me that when he first heard those same words, as a schoolboy in Central Europe, he wanted to reply, “No, it wasn’t me, it was the Cohen boys down the road.”)

Anti-Jewish feeling specifically associated with the Palestine issue gradually subsided, even if it did not entirely disappear, and by the 1950’s the climate was very different. Nor, for all its unpleasantness, did it seriously hamper the social and economic advances that were being made by English Jews during the same period. And anti-Semitism in general, as a new postwar generation came forward, was also in decline.

In my own case, it had never been a practical problem. But alongside any direct experience—or non-experience—of anti-Semitism, there was also the knowledge that it existed. That knowledge had inevitably taken on a darker aspect since the war, so much so that I felt it important not to go too far, not to equate minor anti-Semitism (the golf-club variety) with major anti-Semitism. But neither could the two be altogether divorced.

Meanwhile, pockets of vicious prejudice were still apparent, above all with the postwar revival of the fascist movement led by Oswald Mosley. One of our routes to north London from the East End for weekend family visits took us past Ridley Road in Dalston—famous for its big street market, which was heavily Jewish but also a site much favored by fascists for their open-air meetings and the scene of frequent pitched battles when those meetings were disrupted by Jewish ex-servicemen who had joined together in a militant defense unit known as the 43 Group. We would make a small detour on our journeys through the area if there was any hint of trouble, or if we saw police vans waiting in the side streets; but one drizzly Sunday we found ourselves held up while a fascist parade marched by with an escort of mounted police. There was that jolt you always get when you see something nasty for the first time, however many times you may have heard about it. Perhaps seeing is the only form of completely believing.

Ugly though the postwar Mosleyites were, and frightening though individual fascists could be face to face, collectively they represented less a threat than a reminder: of what had happened in Nazi-occupied Europe, of what could have happened in Britain, of how things had looked before the war. In retrospect, it can be seen that the danger posed by Mosley in the 1930’s, of which I had heard a good deal, was itself exaggerated: his fortunes had been in decline by 1937 or 1938. But that retrospect is supplied by the outcome of the war. At the time, the essential menace of the British Union of Fascists had been the reflected menace of Hitler. It was not so much a matter of votes, of which Mosley never got many, as of the fact that he was part of an international pattern, and the fear that he might be riding the wave of history. After 1945, however, he was on his own, and by the end of the 40’s, with his revived movement fizzling out, he was a back number.

Around that time—1950 is as close a date as I can get—I had a little reminder that, Mosley or no, pathological anti-Semitism lived on. The family had been spending the afternoon in Kensington Gardens. My father and I had gone for a stroll, and we sat down for a moment on a bench when a couple came and sat beside us. He was a small man with a slightly grubby and indefinably unwholesome look—the kind of man who even in those innocent days would probably have been turned down on sight if he had tried to become a scoutmaster. His wife (as I assume she was) seemed a mere mouse. Almost at once they started having a violently anti-Semitic conversation, with the man doing most of the talking and the woman egging him on. It went on for about a minute—we were transfixed—until he said, “I think they should all be towed out to sea in a ship and drowned.” Then we got up and walked away.

I was so naïve, or possibly so reluctant to face the truth, that it was a long while before I realized that the couple had obviously spotted us as Jews, and that the conversation had been conducted specifically for our benefit. What I did find myself wondering, immediately afterward, was why we had not said anything, and why I would not have been ready to hit the man if he had replied with fresh abuse. It would not have taken much courage: he was a puny specimen. Had my father and I, for a minute, assumed the role of passive victims? I felt renewed admiration for the tough tactics of the 43 Group.

One could argue, I suppose, that the couple were too feeble to be worth bothering about. But no doubt many Nazis would have looked similarly feeble if Hitler had not given them their chance. The old poison was still there. One could only hope that it would never again be put to use.



Jews growing up in England after the war (not all of them, I need hardly say) felt under a strong obligation to affirm their Jewishness. Attempting to deny it seemed peculiarly base. I recall a friend, in most respects highly susceptible to the charms of assimilation, saying to me, “I don’t want to be the one in whom the whole thing ends.” Not that it would have, whatever he had done; but putting the matter that way was an oblique statement of solidarity.

In my own case, a sense of solidarity helped to sustain my religious beliefs in the face of adolescent wavering. But my doubts did not go away, and one incident in particular helped to underline them as nothing quite had before.

Among the family members left behind in Poland after my father and grandparents left in 1913 there was a cousin, about ten years younger than he, called Moishe Roitenburg. By the time I first heard of him he was Maurice, pronounced in the French fashion (and hence not to be claimed as another Morrie). Unable to fulfill his ambition of becoming a doctor in Poland, he had studied in France and stayed on there after gaining his degree. For a time, I believe, he worked for a miners’ union, treating industrial diseases. In 1934, when my parents went to Paris on their honeymoon, he had shown them around, and after the war he had re-established contact. During the Nazi occupation he had inevitably been in deadly danger; juif was bad enough, juif polonais was worse. Initially he had gone into hiding in the woods, but after that he had been protected by French colleagues. He was now married to a non-Jewish girl, and working at a hospital at Evreux, in Normandy.

On our first postwar visit to Paris, in 1949, he came up from Evreux to have lunch with us. To my inexperienced eyes, he looked very French, but that was probably on account of the thick black frames of his glasses and the cut of his suit. Before lunch, my father made it clear that we still observed kashrut, the dietary laws; Maurice may have made it clear in turn (I’m not sure) that he did not. At the restaurant, he took charge of the menu. He first ordered the omelettes or fish that we had dutifully asked for, and then added with a flourish, “Et pour moi, veau au pot” (“and for me, the braised veal”).

The moment passed without comment, and I didn’t think there was going to be any fallout. But when Maurice left and we returned to our hotel, my father was furious. Not only that: his features assumed a jeering expression I had never seen before, and he repeated two or three times, in an attempt at mimicry, “Et pour moi, veau au pot; et pour moi, veau au pot.” I kept quiet, which is just as well, because I found his reaction detestable. To get so worked up over such a small thing! To make no allowance for what Maurice had gone through during the war! And wasn’t the whole Jewish taboo over food childish and primitive anyway?

Today, it seems to me that both men must have been under pressures I can only guess at. Maurice, after all, struck me as amiable and polite, not someone who would normally have been indifferent to causing offense. And even at the time I had to concede, on reflection, that my father, given how angry he was, had actually shown considerable restraint: things would have been much worse if he had said anything while Maurice was still there. I calmed down, and detestation faded. But distaste remained.



My father once said to me that no virtue was more important than tolerance. The remark hadn’t impressed me quite as much as it should have; I could not help reflecting that tolerance was something in which Jews had a vested interest. What did impress me, however, living with him and observing him, was the extent to which he lived up to his watchword in practice. He was patient, forbearing, and slow to condemn. He got on with people; he took it for granted that we had to live in a world where there were, in the great phrase, “all sorts and conditions of men.” Even in matters of religion, he was often prepared to relax the rules. But religion was also his sticking point. Every so often he would take a stand which was not only unyielding but, from my point of view, unreasonable as well.

I think there was another, unspoken issue lurking behind the veau au pot incident: the question of intermarriage. Part of my own heated reaction may well have been the result of picturing myself in a similar situation. I dreaded the explosion there would be if one day I were to announce that I was marrying someone who wasn’t Jewish. And although my guess is that my parents would eventually have come around (my mother much more readily than my father), there would still have been enormous distress—and embarrassments and long boring arguments, too. But I also knew, without quite wanting to spell it out to myself, that if the problem ever arose I would follow my own path.

The meeting with Maurice was an undoubted milestone, but it would be quite misleading to portray my adolescence as one long process of emancipation from religion. My inner feelings fluctuated; my outward commitment became, if anything, more obvious. As my circle of Jewish friends widened, I spent more time with people who simply took the main framework of Jewish communal life for granted. In particular, I was introduced to a small youth movement, the Study Groups, which suited my needs very well for a year or two. It was religious, in moderation; it encouraged an interest in Israel without being burdened with an ideology. And it was fun. A good deal of our energy went into writing skits and comic songs. One number, which I thought and still think was brilliant of its kind, was a parody of a hit French song of the period, “Les trois cloches” (“The Three Bells”). It recounted the rise of an alrightnik who began life as little Moishele, transmuted himself into Maurice Conway, and ended up in full splendor as Sir Maurice Conway-Ferguson. We performed it, along with some other songs, at a student concert in Israel in 1953, and were warmly received—with one conspicuous exception. The guest of honor, Golda Meir (then a cabinet minister), sat stony-faced throughout. She was not amused.

Much of my continuing readiness to believe, and to pray, was based on loyalty—loyalty to the “little platoon” into which I had been born, and to the larger tradition of which it constituted a tiny part. But religion retained my allegiance on broader grounds, too. To put it minimally, I did not think that terms like soul, spirit, and holiness were meaningless words. It seemed to me that without the realm of religious experience, life would be a thinner and poorer thing, and that it supplied the poetry of collective existence, as rationalism never could. Thomas Gray had written “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”; nobody had yet written “Elegy in a Country Crematorium.”

These were arguments, or promptings, in favor of religion in general, rather than of any one religion. But religion in general was nowhere to be found. There were only religions; and although in principle, in an open society, one was free to choose among them, in practice one’s choice had been made by history, including personal history. (I might add that history had also instilled in me a tenderness toward the Church of England—toward its liturgy and literature and traditions rather than its actual creed. The decline of the Church in recent years has saddened me, although I suppose a believer might say that I am confusing religious judgments with cultural or aesthetic ones.)

Meanwhile, the forces tugging me toward unbelief remained strong. I was never much drawn to philosophy, but when I was, it was the hard reasoners who attracted me rather than the pseudotheologians; one of the few philosophers I could read for pleasure was David Hume. Had I known it then, I would have been struck by the truth of Heine’s observation that as soon as religion solicits the aid of philosophy, it is doomed.

Not that this was the end of the matter; there are more things in heaven and earth, etc. Religion was about faith rather than reason, and there was even a perverse satisfaction in yielding to its unreasonableness. I was thrilled, at the age of fifteen or so, when I first came across Tertullian’s credo quia impossible, “I believe because it is impossible.” But my enthusiasm soon cooled. I didn’t have the temperament to subsist on a diet of impossibility for very long.

In the end, here as in other respects, I wanted the best of both worlds. “Ambiguity” became a blessed word; the fact that so many things contained their opposite was on the whole a comfort. I could have said, with the literary critic Cyril Connolly, that I believed in “the Either, the Or, and the Holy Both.” In the real world, however, I edged away from both prayer and observance, giving up my own final food taboos on that first trip to Israel—in Jerusalem, no less.

But there were still limits. To have made a clean break with Judaism would have felt like making a clean break with myself. Wavering became a way of life, and by the age of eighteen I had settled, or seemed to have settled, for a world of token observance and demi-semi-belief.



My father died in 1960, when I was twenty-five. He had had a coronary—in those days almost an occupational disease of general practitioners—two years before, and his smoking can’t have helped. The second time around, he took to his bed for a week or so. Then, when he felt worse, he went into the London Hospital, a grim-looking building in Whitechapel where so many of his patients had been sent in their time.

During the last few days at home he managed to read a little. There were two books by his bedside. One was an account of the younger years of Lord Melbourne, the early-19th-century statesman and prime minister. (What would they have made of that in Gorokhov, the little town in Volhynia where he was born?) “He writes beautifully,” he said of the author, David Cecil. The other was A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, the anthology edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, which I had brought back for him from America. He read a story by the poet Chaim Grade in which the central character is a follower of the religious movement known as Musar, and it set him reminiscing. Only briefly; he is tired. But he spoke for a moment or two about the founder of the movement, the 19th-century rabbi Israel Salanter, and of the emphasis the Musarists put on morality—on self-examination and good deeds.

In the hospital he was much weaker, and often in pain. The last conversation we had, as opposed to exchanging a few words, was about Khrushchev, Eisenhower, and the shooting down of America’s U-2 spy plane, which had just taken place: he was worried about the consequences. (“They wouldn’t be mad enough to start a war?”) A day or two later, the young doctor who came out from behind the screen around his bed did not really have to say anything: we could read the bad news in his face.

Of the funeral that followed, I remember very little: it was simply something to be gotten through. One incident does stand out, though. On the way back from the cemetery someone introduced me to a small, smiling old woman, and told me that she had been my father’s wet nurse. It seemed incredible, a visitation from a world impossibly remote. But later I reflected that she need not have been more than eighty, and could even have been a year or two younger.

Afterward we “sat shivah,” observing the traditional seven days of mourning, while relatives and friends visited us at home. In some ways I found this a strain. Reciting kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, seemed profoundly right. So did keeping a memorial candle lit for the full seven days. But an elderly relative (not even a close one) had taken charge of the proceedings and insisted we cover the mirrors, which as far as I was concerned introduced a note of spooky superstition; and some of the conversations I was obliged to have with our visitors were either tedious or tense. There were also—a relief, under the circumstances—a few moments of farce. We were presented with a large number of well meant but unwanted gifts, mostly boxes of chocolates, including two containing a brand called Good News.

Work provided a distraction, too. In principle I should have abstained from it; but I had recently begun writing a monthly feature about paperbacks for the Times Literary Supplement, and the next one was due. So every so often I slipped upstairs and banged away at my typewriter, and when the piece was ready I took it around to the TLS by hand. In accordance with the ritual laws of mourning I had stopped shaving, and I showed up at the office with a four-day growth of beard. Today, it would probably be taken for designer stubble, and pass unremarked, but in 1960 I felt I had to explain why.

Some months later we assembled for the consecration of the tombstone. The inscription I had chosen, a verse from the book of Psalms, testified to my father’s upright character. And after that, it was more than 20 years before I saw the cemetery again. When I did, many newer graves had naturally been added. One that caught my eye was that of the East End boxer, Kid Lewis: the inscription on the memorial stone said that he had “taken the count” on such and such a day in 1971. My father’s memorial stone was nearby. It had begun to weather.



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