in the garden


Feb 2014 Journal

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The right climate

I thought I was past the age for epiphanies but one cannot choose the time for a revelation: the revelation decides when its time has come. Mine came one evening, a short while ago, after watching a television programme on the American musical theatre. The message was loud and clear: this particular art form and, to an almost equal extent, the movie business, was created by Jews - a massive contribution to the cultural life of the nation and its hold on the international imagination.
The lesson? When Jews act as messengers of the Muses or operate in the territory where art and commerce overlap, they leave their mark. Wherever they are allowed to do so, they season the native pie. Only in America are they not just seasoning - they are pie.
This has explained - too late to act upon it - a recurring experience that has puzzled and pleased me. Whenever I arrived at JFK on my frequent trips to New York I had my adrenaline rush, a sense of heightened anticipation that owed nothing to free champagne on Concorde. Elation turned my head. Great things might happen at any moment. Suddenly sharper, cleverer, I felt twice the man I was in England. Others have reported similar experiences.
England is where I live my double life: publicly, at work among English colleagues whom I would call acquaintances rather than friends; privately, among family and an ever diminishing circle of survivors, in an almost exclusively German-Jewish refugee milieu, cosy and shrinking. (At a recent milestone birthday party, the carefully drawn-up guest list consisted of fellow refugees and their descendants with or without gentile partners, with not one bona fide Englishman - Jewish or otherwise - in sight.)
It's time to come clean: I am a snob, and generalisations are the snob's oxygen. I do not feel truly at home among the English, and ill at ease in the company of English Jews. I consider the typical Germanophone refugee (i.e. me) better educated, more refined, than his English peer, who did not make the detour via Germany, Austria, Switzerland (the Marx-Freud-Einstein triangle) but took the short cut from Poland, Russia, etc to London's East End and thence to Stamford Hill and The Bishop's Avenue, bypassing the gas chambers and much else besides.
There are inconsistencies in this analysis which I recognise. The majority of creators of American popular entertainment are the very people with whom I don't mix in England. I don't know what makes them more palatable in Hollywood; it could be the rough environment against which they don't stand out; it could be the leavening of refugees such as Lang, Lubitsch, Loewe, Lamar, Lenya (confining myself to one initial letter keeps the list within bounds).
Why the relative paucity of the Jewish contribution to English culture? Of course, there have been, and are, prominent Jews in every walk of life, as ever with a disproportionate share coming from Hitler's cast-offs, but no one can claim that they have significantly helped to shape the England we know today. Without them the scene would be much the same. They lack critical mass; they are without a power base. There are just enough of them to stir up routine anti-Semitism without the compensation of political clout.
Of course there is anti-Semitism in the United States - quite enough not to have to go looking for it - but who cares when there is a powerful political lobby that can make Congress quake. As for a Jewish lobby in this country, forget it. Years ago, I was part of an attempt to get one going and the fiercest resistance to our efforts, to the point of downright hostility, came from certain sections of the Anglo-Jewish establishment.
I understood none of this when I arrived in this country, lucky to be let in, lucky to be alive, thankful and anxious to show my gratitude. But I have never felt that I belonged here, that I was other than a guest, respectful of my hosts and generously tolerated by most of them.
The revelation was about the difference that being part of the pie makes: that in America you belonged from the day you arrived, however outlandish your name, however crude your accent. You are, from your first day, what you can never hope to become even after the 80 years I have lived here.
Historians have put more grandly what they have defined as American exceptionalism - a fundamental egalitarianism that has nothing to do with equality of outcome and everything to do with equality of human dignity. Just the right climate for a Jew.

Victor Ross

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