In the 1960s, in his Beyond the Fringe days, Jonathan Miller distorted his mobile features into a truly agonised expression as he feigned a struggle to describe himself. “I’m Jew-ish,” he said. The audience chuckled deeply at the “I-don’t-want-to-deny-it-and-I’m-not-really- practising-and-obviously-I-don’t-want-to-be- associated-with-the-rest-of-them-but-now- you-come-to-mention-it-I-suppose-I-am” recognisable admission.
Jews and non-Jews in the theatre got the point. Up until recently, it wasn’t chic to be Jewish in Britain. Perhaps Germany was too near in time and place for Jews to be able to relax. All I remember is being aware in some vague way that Jews suffered from low self-esteem and that they were keen to be accepted by gentiles of a certain class.
It hadn’t so much struck me in my small town life—I grew up in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex where there was a reasonably contented Jewish community. But when I moved to London I started to meet Jewish people, men especially, who would distort their personalities and mannerisms to pass into upper middle class British society. They changed their names, their tailors, and moved to areas where other Jews didn’t live; they denied their origins or didn’t own up to it if it cropped up in conversation. In terminal cases, they took up hunting, shooting and fishing. Their idea of sexual heaven and marital triumph was to couple with a blonde gentile.
True, they weren’t all like this. But if you were a Jewish woman (even a not-very-Jewish woman like me), you couldn’t help but notice the number of prominent men who behaved in this way. It wasn’t great for morale. At times, it really hit home. I was dating a man from a well-known Jewish family. They were ardent Zionists. At the end of the affair, over a tearfully miserable lunch in Wilton’s, he took my hand and said: “I’ll always love you. But I could never marry a Jewish girl.” Who was talking about marriage? I just enjoyed the comfort of the affair.
Another time I found myself at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court when a small-time film producer was accused of stealing some framed birds’ eggs from my flat. A colleague of his—and my flat-mate, the Marquess of Reading’s son, Lord Anthony Rufus-Isaacs, appeared, albeit reluctantly, for the defence. We had to take the oath. I said: “I’m Jewish, non-practising, and I’m happy to take the oath as it stands.” It was with some dull shock that I heard…