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Jewish Journal

Jewish in Europe

September 30, 1999 | 8:00 pm

As a young man, fresh out of college, I lived in Europe -- in Paris -- struggling to become a writer and searching for the adult identity that had thus far eluded me. Then, less than a decade later, I found myself living abroad again -- first in Brussels and then in London. In each instance, I felt myself perceived as a Jew in ways that differed significantly from my experience in America.

In the United States, I thought that Jews were beginning to be accepted in the wider, modern, urban culture, were starting to be enfolded into society as Americans. In Europe, however, my perception was that we were outsiders, had been cast as non-belongers throughout that continent's rich and terrible history, and would remain so forever.

It was in response to this, and to the Holocaust in particular, that so many of the European Jews I met in those days had turned away from their Jewish roots. Judaism had offered them pain and death; and, especially among the modern professionals and intellectuals, it had represented a throwback to a way of life -- religious, rural, authoritarian -- that they wished to flee.

Now along comes respected journalist Ruth Gruber, who has covered Jewish Europe for several decades, to tell us that there is a revived interest in Judaism across the continent, most notably on the part of the younger generation (see Page 18). Reading her account, I keep wondering if this transformation is occurring in the face of continued hostility by Europeans, or if it is a reflection of acceptance of Jews (finally) by Europe's urban classes. (Why do I think it is the former?)

Don't misunderstand: My encounters years ago were not unpleasant. Indeed I was delighted with my life in Paris and London (less so in Brussels). Maybe because scarcely a day went by that I did not gain some insight about myself as an American and as a Jew.

Once in Paris, a favorite waiter I came to know refused to recognize me as an American. The restaurant itself was a Jewish delicatessen in the Marais section of Paris. I would visit those old, narrow streets once a week to change money on the black market -- the only way I could afford to live in Paris during those post-student days -- and then stroll down the corner for lunch.

From the beginning, he treated me with a tolerant air. I would speak to him in French; he would reply with amusement in English. Where are you from, he asked after awhile. I'm an American, I replied, from New York. He waved his hand dismissively. No, he said. You're a Jew. He looked at me hard for a moment. Ha, he said, you're from Kiev.

I was stunned, for indeed my grandparents had immigrated to the U.S. from Kiev. I decided compliance was the wise road to follow. If nothing else, the service would improve, the plate be more abundant and I might learn something.

Indeed, I did. What I learned back then was that in France, at least, I would be perceived as a Jew first, and an American only as an afterthought, across all class lines. That all the barriers against French Jews within France would be raised against me as well. My U.S. passport would be of little avail.

One difference seemed to exist among Jewish French writers I knew, who moved easily within French intellectual circles. They were somewhere between indifferent and hostile to Judaism. Politically they were on the left. They associated Judaism with the old shtetls of Eastern and Central Europe. It seemed to offer them little that they valued. Instead they were modernists, focused on human rights and opposed to the old order in politics and religion.

What you need to understand, one friend confided to me, is that the Vichy government, and even the French before the war, would have looked at you and seen a Jew, not an American. I thought he knew what he was talking about.

Nearly a decade later in London I had a different, but telling experience. Applying for an editorial job, I made my way from one rung to another until, finally, the publisher himself interviewed me. If he approved, I would be hired. It's pro forma, I was told by the managing editor who wanted me on the staff. But as we conversed and the publisher asked if I knew this American and that Englishman, I realized all of the names were Jewish. Finally, he switched the conversation to my background. Where did you attend school, he asked. I pitched the names of several impressive colleges at him. No, no, he said. Where did you attend SCHOOL. It was my boarding school, my pedigree, as it were, that interested him. When I told him the Bronx H.S. of Science, I knew the job was lost to me forever.

Later, when I was living and working as a political journalist in London, a friend took me aside and explained that Jews were outsiders (particularly as viewed by the Tories) whether they were British or American. Not as far outside as, say, Pakistanis or Jamaicans, but nevertheless, were seen as Jews first, rather than as English or American. You are doubly outside, he said with a grin, for you're a Jew and an American, and, so, are rejected completely. The Tories can't abide either group, while the left wing writers will embrace you as a Jew but condemn you the instant they discover you're an American who has forced nuclear weapons and this dreadful Cold War on the rest of us. It was only after Mrs. Thatcher, I was told later, that things began to change (slightly) in Britain.

It is primarily for these reasons that I feel most Jewish whenever I travel (let alone live) in Europe. In Hungary, in Romania, in Croatia during the '90s I have witnessed variations on this central theme. It leads me to believe that from the European vantage point -- complete with its tangled history, venerated class structure (worn down to be sure under Communist regimes) and entrenched religious pockets, a Jew is always a Jew, and only incidentally afforded a national identity. Ruth Gruber sees a swing taking place today -- among Jews at least. Perhaps it is the non-Jews who most need to change. -- Gene Lichtenstein


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