A Double Thread: Growing up English and Jewish in Londonby John Gross
John Gross is the son of a Jewish doctor who practiced in East End London from the 1920s to WW2 and later. His parents were the children of immigrants, steeped in the customs and traditions of Eastern Europe, yet outside the home he grew up in the very English world of comics and corner
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A touching memoir of a Jewish-English childhood in 1940s East End London.
John Gross is the son of a Jewish doctor who practiced in East End London from the 1920s to WW2 and later. His parents were the children of immigrants, steeped in the customs and traditions of Eastern Europe, yet outside the home he grew up in the very English world of comics and corner shops, sandbags and bombsites. Looking back on his childhood with humour and insight, he reflects on his double inheritance. The richness of Yiddish words, the rituals and mysteries of the synagogue are set against the life of the streets, where boxers and gangsters are heroes.
Times Literary Supplement
E. S. Turner
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A Double Thread
Growing Up English and Jewish in London
By John Gross
Ivan R. Dee
Copyright © 2002 John Gross.
All rights reserved.
This book is the story of my early life, up to the age of seventeen. That means that it is also the story of the two separate but entwined legacies of being English and being Jewish. Hence my title: A Double Thread.
The changes of the past generation have done a good deal to erode the English sense of identity. Fifty or sixty years ago there was a much firmer idea of what being English meant, even among those who rejected it or sought to change it. And this was the world in which I grew up, and whose customs and assumptions I absorbed with the air I breathed. 'England made me.'
At the same time it was impressed upon me from the earliest days that being Jewish was one of the central facts of my existence. Perhaps the same is true of the great majority of Jews or was, during the Hitler era. But there are degrees of Jewishness, and two circumstances combined to strengthen my commitment. In the first place, my family was Orthodox in principle, and semi-Orthodox in practice: religion underlay our lives. Second, my father's family were relative latecomers to England. My father had been born and spent his childhood in Eastern Europe, in a world which was very remote from my own, yet with which I felt (on occasion) a strong emotional bond.
In describing this mixed inheritance and how it worked itself out, I have concentrated as much on atmosphere as on incident, on social setting as on anecdote. The book is an account of a childhood in which beliefs and a sense of cultural differences played a large part. To some extent, which may give it a representative value, it is meant be a record of those beliefs and of the attitudes or feelings which went with them.
But no life is ever merely representative. Broad social patterns give this book its framework, but it is also, I hope, a demonstration of how those patterns were constantly modified by accident and circumstance, by personal interests and individual temperament. To devote a whole book to one's childhood unless it was a childhood marked by great external dramas, which I can't claim is inevitably to lay oneself open to charges of being self-absorbed. But no memoir is worth writing unless it has the courage of its uniqueness, and if it isn't self-absorbed it is nothing at all.
A number of friends have given me valuable assistance or editorial advice. I would particularly like to thank Jenny Uglow, Miriam Gross and Neil Kozodoy.
I am grateful to the following for permission to reproduce copyright material: Carcanet Press for quotation from The Terrible Shears by D.J. Enright; Faber and Faber for quotations from 'The Price' by W.H. Auden, 'Burnt Norton' and 'Burbank with a Baedeker' by T.S. Eliot, and David Higham Associates for 'Sunday Morning' by Louis MacNeice. Part of Chapter 15 first appeared, in a somewhat different form, in Commentary (New York), and is reprinted by kind permission of the editor and publishers.
'You're such a lobbes!' It is a cousin speaking to me. She is eight or nine, I am three or four, so the year is probably 1939. I realise from her tone that the remark is an affectionate rebuke so affectionate that it is scarcely a rebuke at all. Lobbes means something like 'rascal'. Do I also realise that it isn't an English word, but a Yiddish one? I'm not sure. What I do know is that, even though I understand it, it strikes me as a very strange word. I am fascinated by its shape and sound; it reminds me of 'lobster'. And that begins to raise disturbing possibilities. Do I really want to be compared to a creature as weird as a lobster? (Perhaps, for good measure, I already know that according to Jewish law lobsters are forbidden food.) Everything else is lost in a haze, but my sense of puzzlement must have gone deep: the tiny incident still stands out sharp and clear.
My father was born in Gorokhov, a small town in Volhynia a region straddling south-east Poland and the western Ukraine in 1899 or 1900. The family took in lodgers and traded in feedingstuff for animals. Whether they had any other means of support, I was never told, and never felt impelled to ask not, at any rate, until long after my father was dead and it was too late. In 1913 they emigrated to England. Again, I know nothing of the circumstances, other than that they slipped across the frontier of what was still the Russian Empire by night; that my father, the oldest of four children, carried a small brother on his back as they did; and that they boarded ship at Bremen (a town chiefly memorable to my father as the first place where he tasted ice cream). Arriving in London, my grandparents settled in the East End, and somehow scraped together enough money to start a small, never very flourishing grocery. (Someone once described it to me as the kind of shop which people would pop into for a cupful of rice.) It was in Cannon Street Road, in the shadow of St George's in the East, one of the three great churches which Nicholas Hawksmoor built in east London in the early eighteenth century.
Why England? In the tide of Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe which began in the 1880s, as a result of intensified anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish decrees, the dreamed-of destination was overwhelmingly America. Some Jews who fetched up in England had originally thought of it as a halfway house. Others had been cheated by unscrupulous travel agents: the tickets which were supposed to take them to New York only got them as far as London. But there were no stories of this kind in my family, and no talk of America as an opportunity missed. Nor were there any close family members already established in England, who might have served as an advance guard. Something must have persuaded my grandparents to take this path rather than that path, possibly a quite small consideration; what it was remains a mystery.
Another question mark hangs over the family name. In one or two official documents, dating from their early years in England, it appears in alternative versions, as 'Grosser or Gross'. In practice, it is true, they opted firmly for 'Gross', so the mystery is only a very minor one. Yet every now and then, when I was young, the possibility that I might have been called Grosser set me musing.
For a start, it would have meant that I wouldn't have been exposed to the playground jokes about being 'gross'. (I would no doubt have had to put up with jokes about grocers instead, but they would almost certainly have been preferable.) And I was intrigued for another, less obvious reason. As 'John Grosser' I would have been virtually the namesake of a legendary East End figure, Father John Groser, an Anglo-Catholic priest (his duties included taking charge of St George's in the East after it had been bombed in the Blitz) and dedicated Christian socialist. Not that I would necessarily have welcomed this. On the contrary, the feeling that the possibility produced, as is often the case with namesakes, was rather disconcerting all the more so since Groser was widely regarded, even by those who disagreed with him politically, as a near saint. His long craggy features are preserved for posterity in the 1951 film of Murder in the Cathedral, in which he played Becket. Anyone looking less like a lobbes it would be hard to imagine.
Possibly the confusion over names derived from nothing more than an immigration officer's mistake, a foreign name misheard and scribbled down in a hurry; either way it came to symbolise in my mind the disruptive effects of immigration, its disarray. And it made my father's other name, his Hebrew name, seem rock solid by contrast. Avraham ben Oser Abraham the son of Oser (a variant on Ezra, meaning 'help'): here at least were certainty and continuity.
My father's parents were deeply religious. Their lives were bounded by Jewish law and ritual; their days were largely built around a Jewish timetable, For my grandfather, that meant not only the festivals, major and minor, but three sets of daily prayers shachris in the morning, mincha in the afternoon, ma'ariv in the evening. The Sabbath, of course, was central. My grandmother kept a scrupulously kosher home; and outside that home much the most important focus of their existence was shul, the synagogue.
None of this was extraordinary: countless Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived in the West sharing the same degree of belief. What was more unusual, perhaps, was the tenacity with which they went on clinging to the old ways. Their youngest son, the most obviously go-ahead of their children, once remarked to me, with a touch of affection but rather more exasperation, 'They just tried to go on as though they were still in Gorokhov.' But then they had settled in England at an age at which it was unlikely that they were going to change very much. I know that my grandmother was in her late thirties; my grandfather must have been in his early forties.
They took it for granted that they could transmit their beliefs to their children. To a considerable extent they succeeded. And in the case of my father, their hopes went further not only because he was the oldest, but also because from an early age he had shown signs of being a gifted student. Without any claim to being scholars themselves, they revered scholarship by which they essentially meant the study of the Talmud and its commentators as a supreme Jewish pursuit. My father had begun studying in a yeshiva, a Talmudic college, before the family left Poland, and when they arrived in London one of the first things his mother did she seems to have been the one who took the big decisions was to haul him round to the nearest equivalent she could find, the Yeshiva Ets Chaim in Whitechapel. He was a modest man, but in later life he couldn't conceal a certain pride in recalling the interview which followed. The head of the yeshiva had initially been sceptical about whether he would be up to the standard required. It had taken only a couple of minutes' questioning for him to change his mind.
'Ets Chaim' means 'the tree of life': the Law, as it says in the Book of Proverbs, 'is a tree of life to them that grasp it'. Some fifty years after my father studied there, I sought out the site of the yeshiva. The building was derelict (though you could still make out its name in Hebrew characters over the door), but it can never have been a very imposing structure in its prime a dingy building in a small dingy street. Yet wits were sharpened there, passions were kindled, ancient traditions were preserved.
The Talmud was to remain a closed book to me or rather, a whole series of closed books; but that doesn't mean that I didn't acquire a looming sense of its significance, and of the role it played among the devout. My father's references to it, however casual, implied an entire way of life. To analyse the sacred texts, to enlarge, to extrapolate, to interpret and reinterpret, to make connections and establish distinctions the student rejoiced in the task, and rejoiced that it was endless. A phrase I heard quoted more than once was 'the sea of the Talmud'. The sea stretched to the horizon; it got deeper the further out you went.
At the same time I could hardly fail to be aware that among its critics the Talmud was associated with arid legalism and hairsplitting. The short answer to such accusations (since the critics seemed to have no trouble in producing examples of what they meant) was that it contained lots of other things as well. I at least learned enough at second-hand to know that it was a whole literature rather than a single book; that along with its legal elements (the Halachah), it consisted of a mass of ethical reflections, folklore, prayers, parables, records, legends and imaginative speculations (the Haggadah). It would have been out of character for my father not to have appreciated this more imaginative and emotion-charged material; equally, I don't think he would have denied that the dialectical swordplay of the Talmud sometimes degenerated into mere ingenuity. But overall, as far as I can judge, the Halachah Still gave him at least as much pleasure as the Haggadah. When he spoke of a Talmudic passage 'tasting good' (having a gute ta'am), he could have been thinking of either.
Although study at a yeshiva was engaged in for its own sake, as its own reward, it could obviously lead on to a career as a rabbi, and the next step my father took enrolling as a student at Jews' College, which at that time was in Queen Square, Bloomsbury looked like a move in the same direction. Founded in 1855 (at a later date it would no doubt have been given a less brusque name), the college was a seminary designed to turn out ministers on the approved Anglo-Jewish model. But for some of its students from immigrant homes it also served as a bridge to a wider English world, and the professions, and so it proved with my father. In his case, that meant medicine. He was accepted by St Bartholomew's Hospital, 'Bart's', in Smithfield an unusual achievement at the time for a student with his kind of background and embarked on the long slog of medical training, partly supporting himself by giving Hebrew lessons, almost always walking from Whitechapel to the hospital and back in order to save the fare. In 1925, not long after qualifying, he set up in practice in Mile End, where he was to work and make his home for the rest of his life. Unlike most of his Jewish contemporaries unlike his own parents he never left the East End.
Life as a doctor brought him into much greater contact with non-Jews, especially among his patients. It also made inroads into his Jewish commitments. Strict observance of the Sabbath was no longer feasible, for instance. (There were surgeries on Saturday mornings and Saturday nights in those days and on Sunday mornings, for that matter.) Quite possibly, too, his whole outlook was subtly modified. Yet his essential loyalties remained firm. He prayed; he observed the major Jewish laws as best he could; he even occasionally found time to 'run off' (as he would have put it) to a shiur, an informal Talmudic study group.
He had been in medical practice for almost a decade before he got married. My mother, Muriel, who was twelve years younger, had been born in England: on her mother's side she came from a large family, originally from Lithuania, which had settled in London shortly before the turn of the century. The men her mother was one of eleven brothers and sisters were mostly furriers; they were hard-headed types who knew how to make a decent living, and at a fairly early stage they had got away from the East End, trekking north (a common route for their generation) towards the more spacious regions of Dalston, Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill.
In terms of his early background, then, and of foreignness, my father was less a contemporary of my mother than of her parents and uncles and aunts. Even that doesn't tell the whole story. My mother's grandparents had been devout Jews, on the standard East European model. Their children kept up some of the old ways, and were of course unmistakably Jewish, but (as far as I could judge) they weren't attached to their Jewishness with any great warmth. Certainly religion played far less part in their lives than it did in my father's, It is a mark of how far they had moved on that the eldest of the brothers, the head of the clan, left instructions that he should be cremated something which on religious grounds would have been unthinkable in my father's family.
Whatever their differences from him, the assembled uncles and aunts liked my father and made him welcome. They were great card players, and a regular feature of my childhood was hanging around on family visits while the grown-ups got on with their poker or solo or whatever. Sometimes a relative would take pity on me and invite me to join him, or more likely her, in a simple card game: there was a particularly elementary one, just about my level, called pishi-paisha. But I never much liked cards, then or later, and preferred to read the papers or eavesdrop on the adults. Between games and during pauses there was a lot of family gossip, the more interesting to me for being only half-understood, and sporadic talk about politics. I can recall Hitler's name being mentioned with a curse.
Excerpted from A Double Thread by John Gross. Copyright © 2002 by John Gross. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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John Gross is theatre critic of the Sunday Telegraph and former editor of the Times Literary Supplement. For a number of years he was also a staff writer for the New York Times in New York. His other books include the classic study The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, and the widely acclaimed Shylock: Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend. He lives in London.
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