"Dark Heart(s)". Family Secrets and Hidden Selves in the Work of Charlotte Mendelson

Master's Thesis, 2015

80 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Charlotte Mendelson and the “Jewish Condition”
2.1 Holocaust Aftermath: Starting Afresh in Great Britain
2.2 Contemporary Jewish Identities in the UK: Charlotte Mendelson as a British-Jewish Subject and Novelist

3. Dark Heart(s): Family Secrets and Hidden Selves in the Works of Charlotte Mendelson
3.1 Family as a Potentially Problematic Microcosm and the Effect of Family Secrets on Individual (Younger) Members
3.2 Almost English - Assimilation and Negotiation: Trying to Fit In
3.3 Excursus: Engaging with Stereotypes (Based on the Example of Mendelson’s Portrayal of Jewish/Jew-ish Mothers)

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

I cannot remember my country The land whence I came; Whence they brought me and chained me and made me Nor wild thing nor tame. Amy Levy, “Captivity” (1889) It’s very strange being a Jew in England.

We’re not seen as quite English, and in England, foreign isn’t a good thing.

Charlotte Mendelson qtd. in Kriegh (2007)

In 2003, English literature professor Bryan Cheyette noted that “’there exists a commonplace perception, despite a good deal of evidence to the contrary, that Jewish writers in Britain do not exist’” (qtd. in Gilbert 7). Although there have been a number of successful Jewish writers as early as the 1960s, including Har- old Pinter and Anita Brookner, Jewish writing in Britain has been widely over- looked by academic researchers and the reading public alike. Pinter and his col- leagues were generally not recognised as part of a larger British-Jewish literary tradition since their Jewishness rarely featured in their artistic works (cf. Behlau and Reitz 10-11). Therefore, it took until the 1990s for their Jewish experience to become part of the wider literary discussion. The small minority of writers (such as Bernard Rubens or the playwright Arnold Wesker), who did dramatize their Jewish experience, were merely successful for a limited time in the 1960s and 1970s and were only rediscovered when the general upsurge of public interest occurred (cf. Behlau and Reitz 10-11). Up until today, British-Jewish writing is by no means recognised as a genre and not well-established in the public and scholarly mind. Even “Judaic literary scholars . . . look for their inspiration and their canonical writers in the supposedly more authentic fields of Hebrew and Yiddish literature or, at a stretch, in the American-Jewish Diaspora” (Cheyette, British-Jewish Literature 7) and British Jews themselves tend to read works of American-Jewish authors “if they want to reflect on themselves” (Mendelson qtd. in Sethi).1

Furthermore, with regard to British-Jewish literature, it appears notewor- thy that the vast majority of Jewish writers do not have genealogical roots in Great Britain but are, in fact, descendants from Jewish immigrants. Indeed, there have been two major waves of Jewish migration to the UK: the first one took place around 1900 and involved mainly Jews from Eastern Europe, and the sec- ond was brought about by the Holocaust when Jewish people from Germany and Nazi-occupied countries fled to the UK (cf. Behlau and Reitz 10-11). While Jewish migrants of the first generation did their best to assimilate as quickly and smoothly as possible, their descendants were faced with the problematic task to “negotiat[e] their Jewish family backgrounds with their experiences as British citi- zens and found their place within a British society that did not encourage differ- ence” (Behlau and Reitz 10-11). As a result of trying to fit in with a rather mono- lithic society, a form of “cultural amnesia [took place,] result[ing] in a form of semi[-]acculturation, [creating] a person who [feels] neither Jewish nor English” (Cheyette, Contemporary Jewish Writing2 xxii). That this condition is lingering is obvious in regard to the two introductory quotes which were phrased more than a hundred years apart from one another and yet both hint at an “endless sensa- tion of being caught in mid[-]air, neither flying nor standing still[, leading to for- ever feeling in-between,] simultaneously belonging and not belonging” (Chey- ette, Contemporary Jewish Writing xxvi).

This paradoxical sentiment is - to various extents - at the core of every work written by the British-Jewish author Charlotte Mendelson. So far, the novel- ist has published four books, namely Love in Idleness (2001), Daughters of Jerusa- lem (2003), When We Were Bad (2007), and Almost English (2013),3 which could all be typified as intercultural coming-of-age novels.4 The main source of inspira- tion appears to be Mendelson’s own multi-ethnic background. - She was born in London in 1972 and grew up in St John’s College, Oxford, where her father taught public international law. But even though she is English-born and has a Cockney grandfather, Mendelson identifies herself as not in the least English since her pa- ternal grandmother stemmed from “’Latvia and Poland’” (qtd. in Westbrook) and her maternal grandparents were “’Hungarian-speaking-Czech, Ruthenian for about 10 minutes [and also somewhat] Carpathian mountain-y’” (qtd. in Edemari- am) and came to England with “the last train out of Prague” (Mendelson) fleeing from the Nazis as Jewish refugees (cf. Mendelson). Especially her maternal grand- parents are a lasting inspiration for Mendelson. Her “’Hungarian side is the side [she] like[s] showing off the most’” (qtd. in Westbrook) and is repeatedly referred to in interviews. Her hybrid background “has enabled [Mendelson] to become an essentially diasporic writer” (Cheyette, Diaspora and Multiculturalism 54) and even though she strongly objects to being labelled a “Jewish Lesbian writer” (Kriegh), which “critics and reporters routinely [do]” (Lerner), her Jewish family background and sexual orientation are reoccurring topics in every plot she cre- ates. Of course, “[n]othing makes a writer bridle more than . . . suggesting their fiction is autobiographical” (Edemariam) but in Mendelson’s case, personal expe- riences have clearly “been adapted, twisted, changed, and in the changing, be- come fiction” (Edemariam). In interviews, she admits openly to autobiographical influences and even employs them as marketing tools, i.e. when she speaks about her Jewishness with journalists from pertinent magazines such as The Jewish Quarterly or hints at lesbian contexts when talking to a blogger writing for Great Gay Reads. Although Mendelson’s works feature both cultural hybridity and ho- mosexuality as overarching themes, the latter will not is not focused on as the lesbian coming-outs of the respective characters appear to be less central to the storylines than their “ethnic” backgrounds and are happening at a startling speed. Mendelson herself said that she experienced “’a 10-minute cross-over period of uncertainty’” (qtd. in Edemariam) but this is certainly most unusual and seems so hard to believe that it becomes very much a subplot in all three novels where a sexual coming occurs (namely LiI, DoJ, WWWB).

When reading Mendelson’s novels in chronological order, it seems as if her writing has undergone some development. Recurring topics and tropes, such as living in a supposedly “cryptic” family microcosm and the difficulties of finding one’s identity in circumstances that resemble “exile”, are condensed, deepened, and shaped into more complex versions. Hence, her work seems to display a form of literary genesis with the latest publication, the Booker-nominated AE, the cli- max of Mendelson’s oeuvre so far. True to the notion that a “’Jewish writer is not necessarily one who charters the word ‘Jew’ in his writings, but the one for whom the word ‘Jew’ is contained in all the words of the dictionary” (Jabés qtd. in Brauner 185), Mendelson repeatedly uses themes which are very characteristic in Jewish writing, including problems in identity formation, feeling left out and suf- fering from unspoken truths about the experiences of ancestors (related to the Holocaust). In 2013, the literary editor of The Jewish Chronicle Gerald Jacobs has written that “[w]here her characters are Jewish they tend to be gently, subtly so. They are not ‘in disguise’ as [G]entiles[, hold a] universal appeal” and thus target a wider audience. Of course, proving a sort-of “innate” textual Jewishness seems to be an impossible task and instead, this paper seeks to provide enough back- ground information to show where Mendelson’s writing originates from and what it relates to. The depiction of very “Jewish” concerns such as the aforementioned “endless sensation of . . . forever feeling in-between” will be the main focus of the literary analysis of Mendelson’s work. In order to provide a general understanding of Jewish literary tradition, a brief overview of Jewish diasporic life in Britain will be given, followed by an attempt to outline the difficulties of British-Jewish iden- tity formation and their impact on British-Jewish writing.

It appears noteworthy that the novel that deals most openly with Mendel- son’s Jewish experience and has been widely acclaimed as an authentic piece of British-Jewish writing and “one of very few novels written from the viewpoint of British Jews” (Edemariam), is her third publication WWWB. Her previous two books “’both had characters which to [her were] Jewish, and probably to Jews were Jewish, but [Mendelson is] not sure [whether] non-Jews would necessarily think of them that way’” (Mendelson qtd. in Westbrook). WWWB is her first work where Mendelson has “’really gone for it’” (Mendelson qtd. in Westbrook) but even though it is, as she puts it, “’really Jewy’ [sic]” (Lerner), one might wonder whether her latest book, AE, might not be even more so. The critically acclaimed novel embraces most of the topics touched upon before, tackles typically “Jew- ish” topics and evokes an atmosphere that is almost prototypical for Jewish fic- tion - even though no character openly acknowledges being Jewish!

The intent of this paper is to look closely at the evolution of Mendelson’s work and to analyse how exactly recurring themes have been changed and been made more complex. Due to the finite length it, some topics such as homosexual- ity and coming out or Mendelson’s approach to the so-called “sibling theory” had to be omitted or were only briefly touched upon. Instead, the focus will be on the depiction of the respective family microcosms, disrupted communication patterns including (trans-)generational secrecy and the relationship between exile and self-discovery. In addition, an extra chapter will provide an insight into how Men- delson engages with common Jewish stereotypes. This excursus will be based on the cliché of the Jewish über-mother, the so-called “kvetcher”, which features in three of her works.

2. Charlotte Mendelson and the “Jewish Condition”

2.1 Holocaust Aftermath: Starting Afresh in Great Britain

As “Christ Killers [who] stubbornly refused to see the light of Christian salvation [and were] stuck to the dispensation” (Nochlin 10), Jews used to be regarded as the irrevocable other in Christian Europe and have often been met with hatred and ostracism (cf. Nochlin 10). In fact, “[t]here was no place in Europe where Jews could live in equanimity, peace and security long enough to establish roots . . . until well after the French Revolution” (Nochlin 10). But even then, things subtly changed for the worse. Until the modern period, Jewishness was primarily de- fined as a religious concept which meant that “conversion could deliver the me- dieval and early modern Jews from the stigma of their identity” (Garb 22). After- wards, it came to be conceived not as a matter of belief but as a racial identity [that] could not be discarded [any more, but] was essential property of the Jews, their ineradicable nature, rooted in their biology, their psychological make-up, and their cultural heritage. (Garb 22)

This meant that “[i]n the mind of the anti-Semite, nothing, not even the most accomplished performances of the assimilated cosmopolitans of the modern pe- riod, could eradicate their essential identity as Jews” (Garb 23). As a consequence of the resulting discrimination, living a life in exile, or in diaspora, became a key feature of Jewish life, culture and literature. The sense of placeless-ness . . . make[s] Jews diasporists par excellence (cf. Cheyette, Diasporas of the Mind 47). There are even specific terms in Hebrew as well as Yiddish describing this condi- tion as tlishit (“uprootedness”) or luftmenshen (“people of air”). They are “‘figures of space’ insofar as they hover between places, finding their voice in their sense of displacement [or] their . . . ‘in-betweenness’” (Jelen, Kramer and Lerner 14). The latter is most certainly true for Charlotte Mendelson who grew up in Oxford but neither “’feel[s] English [nor] anything else’” (qtd. in Peake-Tomkinson) and thus embodies the lingering perception of uprootedness and “’feel[ing] a mix’” (qtd. in Sethi).

Originally, the term “diaspora” stems from the Greek dia-speirein, which means “to scatter”, “to disperse” or “to sow”. The word was first used “in Deuter- onomy to describe the dispersal of the Jews” (Saldago 185) and reappeared later in the New Testament in reference to the dispersion of the disciples and the spreading of the gospel. In the Middle Ages, it referred to Jews outside of Israel and up until today, the diasporic imaginary is closely related to Jewish people. While diaspora traditionally referred to “the dispersion of the Jews among the Gentiles and their belief in an eventual return to the (lost) homeland[, i]n current (multi)cultural theory” (Sommer 159), it is more generally applied in reference to large-scale migrations such as the African diaspora (cf. Cheyette, Diasporas of the Mind 45-6), and has even been “reverted to its original etymology indicating a universali[s]ed state of homelessness that is at the heart of the gospel of post- modern and postcolonial theory” (Cheyette, Diasporas of the Mind 46). Despite this generalisation, the Jewish diaspora remains prototypical5 and therefore, postmodern thinkers such as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Emmanuel Lévinas and Jean-François Lyotard turn the concept of diaspora into an allegory, describing “’the Jew’ [as] the signifier of an ineffable alterity within Western metaphysics” (Cheyette, Diasporas of the Mind 46).6 As Lyotard puts it, the defining characteris- tic of European Jews is that they are the objects of a non-lieu, a “no-place” (cf. Lyotard qtd. in Cheyette, Diasporas of the Mind 47).7

In regard to actual diasporas the social scientist Robin Cohen defines two different types, namely a “victim diaspora”, which is a dispersal from a homeland, and a “non-victim diaspora”, undertaken in pursuit of work and a better life (cf. Fludernick xii). This notion is shared by the Hebrew terminology for diaspora which has two connotations: while golah means taking residence in a foreign country and being in charge of one’s own destiny, galut implies a tragic sense of displacement (cf. Cheyette, Diasporas of the Mind 45). Thus, the “experience of diaspora can be a blessing or a curse or, more commonly, an uneasy amalgam of the two states” (Cheyette, Diasporas of the Mind 45). In either case, “diaspora constitutes a space which both ‘disrupts the very categories of identity’ and is the location of particulari[s]ed histories and cultures” (Boyarin and Boyarin qtd. in Cheyette, Diasporas of the Mind 50). In an essay titled “The Diasporic Imaginary”, the English literary scholar Vijay Mishra links Benedict Anderson’s eminent con- cept of “imagined communities” with the current tendency of an unashamed self- characterisation as being part of a diasporic people and the cultural drive to cre- ate an individual ‘imaginary’ which is “a landscape of dream and fantasy that an- swers their desires” (qtd. in Fludernick xi).8 He suggests that “the idea of home- land is often, in fact, a mythologized construction” (Gilbert 61). In an attempt to overcome the traumatic “loss of cultural, religious and national roots” (Sommer 159) and possibly also as a form of resistance to the pressures of assimilation to the dominant culture “begins a collective mythmaking” (Sommer 159).

Whereas Jews used to be “[v]isibly different through their dress, lan- guage, occupations, and religious practices” (Garb 21), with the exception of the Orthodox, contemporary British Jews differ - at least visually - not too much from their British hosts. Charlotte Mendelson herself admits that visually and superfi- cially, she might “’pass for’ [but does, in fact, not] ’feel English’” (qtd. in Sethi). Instead, she identifies with “’an awful lot of people in England with grandparents who are immigrants, look like they could be Anglo-Saxon but actually . . . don’t feel like that at all’” (qtd. in Peake-Tomkinson). - Englishness might very well be “as constructed a category as any other national identity” (Stratton 21), but the powerful impact of growing up in a society without feeling fully part of it should not be underestimated. Mendelson still suffers from “’the insecurity of the immi- grant even though [she is] two generations away’” and fully identifies with the ‘”feeling that there’s a right way to dress, be, choose, like different things [that] somehow [she does not] know about[,] because [she finds herself to be] a bit of a scruffy foreigner’” (qtd. in Peake-Tomkinson). Instead, she felt “’grotesquely foreign’” (qtd. in Peake-Tomkinson) when she grew up and found it hard to negotiate her identity. Born in 1972, Mendelson was not raised in a culture that welcomed cultural and ethnic plurality: In the British context, the “normative Englishness has only recently given way to an acknowledgment of the plurivocality of Britain as a multicultural society” (Neumeier 88).

As mentioned before, “[h]istorically, Jews have been seen as eternal out- siders, as people who have been cast adrift in the uncertainties of the diaspora and are never truly at home” (Gilbert xi). In addition, it has often been argued that along with other ethnic minorities, the Jews who came to the UK were invit- ed to “cast off their old culture and accept a new one” (Stratton 1) and “’to take their place, and become spectators of a culture already complete and represent- ed for them by its trustees’” (Dodd qtd. in Cheyette, Imagined Communities 95). The monolithic, dominant culture of so-called Englishness used to hold a particu- larly seductive power and for a long period of time the émigré Jews were “ex- tremely anxious to win acceptance in their adopted country” (Cheyette, Contem- porary Jewish Writing xv) and many as Charlotte Mendelson’s maternal grandpar- ents, were “’proud to be British’” (qtd. in Sethi).

Overall, the process of assimilation can “signify a range of social and polit- ical phenomena[: i]t has been used as an expression of hope and of danger, of welcome and disgust, of progress and of betrayal” (Kramer 313). It is a concept that “carries with it the complex of emotions that have adhered to it” (Kramer 314). Complex, since “[e]thnic minorities have to meet at least two challenges: the external pressure of assimilation to the traditions of the cultural minority and internal tensions between different generations within the diaspora itself” (Som- mer 177). Even the most determined and enthusiastic émigrés bear “traces of their parents’ and grandparents’ lives[, especially] the descendants of those who were more ambivalently received” (Stratton 1) and they may respond to the chal- lenge of assimilation by adapting to the new way of life or by holding on to the traditions. This situation is all the more complex for Jewish people. Due to their diasporic background, the photojournalist Judah Passow described the key to Jewish survival as being able to adapt particularly well to changing conditions with the capacity to question and reinvent themselves (cf. Gilbert xii). But even if “in many respects the fate of Anglo-Jewry can be viewed as a success story, and British Jews have been comparatively fortunate, this is by no means an unambig- uous or uncomplicated tale” (Gilbert 2-3).9 Whereas “generally Jews have been tolerated in Britain, a deep well of anti-Semitic prejudice has also rippled beneath the surface of Anglo-Jewish life” (Gilbert 3). Additionally, on arrival in Great Brit- ain, many Jewish migrants were not necessarily greeted kindly even by their own people: while the latter half of the nineteenth-century saw English Jews being granted full civil and political rights, a new wave of immigrants coming from Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1914 caused fresh anxiety of being persecuted once again, based on the embarrassment which “the Anglo-Jewish elite [suffered in regard to the] poor and unassimilated sons and daughters of immigrants” (Cheyette, Contemporary Jewish Writing xvii) and “the presence of [so-called] Ostjuden produced a fear that their own relative acceptance would be chal- lenged” (Stratton 3). “Nearly a century after the struggle for emancipation Anglo- Jewry was still desperately attempting to prove it was worthy of the rights and freedoms extended by dominant society” (Cheyette, Contemporary Jewish Writ- ing xvii). In fact, [m]any accounts of growing up in the 1940s, 50s and even 60s describe an atmosphere of quiet repression that permeated Anglo-Jewish conscious- ness.10 As one British Jew recalls it, post-war Jews mitigated their feelings of underlying anxiety by ‘being quiet, keeping a low profile, not wanting to be ruffled by anything, nor ruffling anything’; adding, ‘I suppose we were colluding with each other to disappear into England and lose our identity’. (Gilbert 4)

This highly sceptical attitude towards migrants in Britain changed greatly with large-scale immigration from Pakistan, India, the Caribbean and Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s. The 1990s in particular saw a movement towards a new cultural diversity and the policy of devolution, implemented by the Labour gov- ernment in 1997, supported even further changes (cf. Behlau and Reitz 9). As a consequence, the British have increasingly come to see themselves as an ethni- cally and culturally heterogeneous society rather than a monolithic ‘English’ enti- ty and the concept of ‘Englishness’ is slowly being replaced by a more inclusive concept of ‘Britishness’ (cf. Behlau and Reitz 9-10).11 But despite the increasing liberalism, it seems important to recognise “what it means to be a child, grand- child or even great-grandchild of immigrants in a country that has traditionally valued continuity and longevity in lineage” (Gilbert 5). The British novelist L.P. Hartley writes, for instance, that the past, for most British Jews, is literally “’a for- eign country’” (qtd. in Gilbert 21), meaning that their family origins are elsewhere (cf. Gilbert 21). This is definitely the case for Charlotte Mendelson who comes from “a confusing and complicated Central European background” (Martin) which is so complex that she refers to it as being “’a kind of novella’” (qtd. in Peake- Tomkinson).

2.2 Contemporary Jewish Identities in the UK:

Charlotte Mendelson as a British-Jewish Subject and Novelist Centuries of negative stereotyping cannot be erased so easily - not even in the minds of those who would discredit the anti-Semites and defend the Jews The almost universal opprobrium felt by Christian Europe for Jews and Jewishness, epitomi[s]ed in the stereotypical construction of ‘The Jew,’ seeps into the most hidden layers of even the most enlightened and self-confident psyche, where it lies dormant until stimulated[.]

Nochlin 8

To be a Jew leads not to a final definition, but to further questions.

Gold qtd. in Brauner 233

In England, even in London[,] I edit myself all the time[.]

Mendelson qtd. in Lerner

In an attempt to understand and characterise “the Jew”, the outside world has often given in to the “desire to homogenise cultural diversity[, but there] is no single Jewish culture” and “’the Jew’ as a unified entity has led to an attempt to think of Jews as having a common culture” (Stratton 3). Whereas “[r]religiously observant Jews may feel little or no ambiguity about [the matter of their identity,] others are challenged and, at times, even befuddled” (Liska and Nolden ix). The literary critic George Steiner named this dilemma a “Jewish condition”. Even though the most generally accepted definition12 is that a Jew is any person who identifies himself as such (cf. Siegel qtd. in Brauner 3), there is also “the theory that Jewishness is a psychological trait [which is] a view that adheres” (Brauner 3). For example the novelist Cynthia Ozick argues that “’Jews have many languages but one mind’” (qtd. in Brauner 3) which shows her understanding of Jewishness to be a metaphysical characteristic. In addition to this more or less “racial” defini- tion and the view that Jewishness is a religious trait, there are multiple other pos- sibilities of characterising it which includes regarding it as nationality, historical legacy, leaned tradition, sensibility, or simply as cultural construct (cf. Brauner 3). Charlotte Mendelson, for instance, grew up as the daughter of Jewish atheists and has “’virtually never been to a synagogue in [her] life’” (qtd. in Page), but “her Jewish cultural identity has always been a distinctive element of her background” (Page) nevertheless. She regards herself as “’a very proud Jew, and . . . culturally increasingly Jewish’” (qtd. in Kriegh). For her, being Jewish does not necessarily mean to be religious. Instead, she beholds it as “more of a cultural thing, [includ- ing] hand gestures[, un-English] food[, Jewish] jokes and Yiddish words, and [as] a way of feeling slightly different’” (qtd. in Westbrook) and of “’not quite fitting in’” (qtd. in Lerner).

Mendelson’s secular definition of her individual Jewishness is actually shared by a vast majority of twenty-first-century British Jews who furthermore are “incrementally coupling with non-Jews and bringing up children who do not nec- essarily identify as Jewish themselves” (Gilbert 12). (Mendelson, too, has a non- Jewish partner with whom she has two children.) Gilbert has argued, that secular Jews in “mixed couples” pass their Jewishness on as “a trace, an increasingly di- luted, almost homeopathic, element of identity” (Gilbert 12). This notion is shared by the self-labelled “Jew-ish”13 journalist Jonathan Margolis who writes in an arti- cle that appeared in the Guardian in 2009 that his “sort of Jew” is the one who is “in it but not into it, enjoying the culture, the humour, the hypochondria, the Yid- dish-isms, the argumentativeness, the curious, sceptical take on the world” but is “weirded out by the inward-looking-ness and the religious stuff”. He is not ashamed of being what he calls a “fair-weather” Jew who wants “to have [his] bagel and eat it” even though “real” Jews despise this kind of secular Judaism. In his article, Margolis focuses on the fact that being Jewish means more than ad- hering to a certain faith. Even atheist Jews cannot lapse, he argues, since being Jewish is a much more complex concept.

Even though a vast variety of Jewish identities seem to be present in Brit- ain which supposedly makes it difficult to determine key characteristics, Nochlin observes that the uniting and universal theme that is “[h]overing, unspoken for the most part, above [the] discourse about Jewish identity and representation after the middle of the twentieth century[,] is the shadow of the holocaust” (8). Indeed, whether directly or indirectly, every Jew has somehow been emotionally affected by their people’s experiences, “as they negotiate their British and Jewish identities in a post-Holocaust world” (Gilbert 39). As the literary analysis in chap- ter 3.1 will show, the Jews who fled from Germany or Nazi-occupied countries either chose never to speak about the Holocaust, or spoke of it often and in many modes. For some it strengthened their identification with Britain, for others it revealed a profound insecurity about issues of belonging. For some it intensified and accelerated the process of assimilation, for others it marked a realization of inassimilable otherness. (Gilbert 29)

It seems worthwhile to mention that in 2006, in a speech given at Bevis Marks, the oldest synagogue in London, the then Prime Minister Tony Blair compliment- ed British Jews on their exemplary smooth history of assimilation into British life, observing that they showed “’how it is possible to retain a clear faith and a clear identity, and at the same time be thoroughly British” (qtd. in Weber). - Whether Blair’s notion really applies to the sentiments of most British Jews appears ques- tionable, however. The photojournalistic exhibition No Place Like Home: Britain’s Jewish Community in the 21st Century14 which took place at the Jewish Museum in London staged perfect examples of the different natures of Jewish life in Britain and the variety of contemporary British-Jewish identities. Whereas some pictures were “specifically and unmistakably Jewish in content” (Gilbert xi), others were more elusive, featuring powerful emblems of identity, such as the Star of David, and several in- cluded the Union Jack flag. In observing the way in which these signifiers of Jewishness and Britishness are juxtaposed, the viewer was encouraged to reflect on issues of different, dual and maybe multiple identifications. (Gilbert xi) As Passow’s photographs reveal, the “question, about whether one [can] be both Jewish and ‘English’, runs deep in the Anglo-Jewish consciousness” (Gilbert 4). Stereotypically, as Linda Grant puts it, “Englishness is this and Jewishness is that. [Thus, t]he two seem mutually contradictory: one all tact, reserve, meaningful silence, the other none of those things.” The “seemingly impossible contradiction in British-Jewish identity is a recurring theme in many recent memories and nov- els and a prevailing tone of irresolution runs[, in fact,] through this writing” (Gil- bert 4). As Woolf has noted, [t]he Jewish writer is not particularly different . . . from any other writer ex- cept in that the fate of the JEWs has been exceptionally contradictory and has led to a fiction which seeks, . . . to reconcile the irreconcilable. The Jewish writer in Britain is thus called upon to draw from a rich vein of par- adox and ambiguity out which a field of meaning can be constructed. (qtd. in Gilbert 1)

Woolf’s emphasis on the “Jewish writer in Britain” hints at the complexity of the entire Modern Jewish literature which is by no means a “national literature” since “it has neither a shared language15 nor a common geography” (Jelen, Kramer and Lerner 1). Therefore, Dan Miron suggested that there are “multiple Jewish litera- tures” (Jelen, Kramer and Lerner 1).16 This contains the subcategory of British- Jewish literature that has had, as mentioned in the introduction, no long standing tradition and has only recently started to be publicly recognised. Actually, Chey- ette argues that “around a century ago, [it] was suffocated at birth” (British-Jewish Literature 7).17 One of the reasons is that there “clearly [is] something quite pro- found about English culture, which saps the confidence of its writers who happen also to be Jews” (Cheyette, British-Jewish Literature 7). Therefore, until recently, the best-known post-war Jewish writers in the UK, including Anita Brookner, Ga- briel Josipovici, Peter Shaffer, and the playwright Harold Pinter, have only created minor Jewish characters and avoided addressing all matters Jewish explicitly (cf. Cheyette, Imagined Communities 92). This might be related to the fact that Brit- ish-Jewish writing displays the difficulty to “[absorb] a monolithic Britishness” (Cheyette, British-Jewish Literature 8).

Cheyette observes that “English national culture is made up of a homoge- nous unchanging idea of the past” (British-Jewish Literature 8) and, as mentioned in 2.1, British Jews “’were invited to take their place, and become spectators of a culture already complete and represented for them by its trustees’” (Dodd qtd. in Cheyette, British-Jewish Literature 8). This is in stark contrast to American-Jewish authors, who were and are less challenged to “[absorb] their Jewish past [and are part of a culture which is characterised by] mobility and [a] Protean18 nature” (Cheyette, British-Jewish Literature 8). Whereas the “US dazzles and obliterates, . . . the British Jewish experience is one of an uncertainty of identity, of a difficulty in establishing [one]self as an individual soul or an ethnic voice” (Grant). Mendelson notes that “’[t]here are very, very few British novelists who write about being Jew- ish’” (qtd. in Brawarsky) and feels that in the United States “’it seems easier to be comfortably Jewish without fear of minor, or major, tension’” (qtd. in Brawarsky).

Based on the process of assimilation and semi-acculturation, “[c]ontemporary British-Jewish writing [surely cannot] speak for British Jews, but instead engages with fragments of British-Jewishness” (Gilbert 14). Furthermore, since there is “[n]o single version of Judaism[, it] has become a matter of re-invention, not a known or given form but another fictional construction to be negotiated and developed in relation to the various notions of Britain that are similarly the matter of invention” (Woolf 139). Therefore, one might argue that along with the standard fictional elements including plot and characters “Jewish writers in Britain have had to invent the Jewish self” (Woolf 139).19

Regarding British-Jewish writing, Michael Woolf has pointed out that it is chiefly shaped by two influences: namely continental Europe and Israel (cf. 125- 6). To Charlotte Mendelson, only the first applies. As mentioned above, she feels continually puzzled by her hybrid background but at least as children she and her sister were “’proudly Hungarian [and thought that it] explained [them]’” (Mendel- son). Any difficulties relating to her background or, generally, to a migrant back- ground as it features in her novels, appear to be mainly intrinsic. In general, Men- delson avoids any political and potentially controversial references and state- ments and does not, for instance, mention Israel in any of her works. Her “Jewish” novel WWWB is deliberately set before 9/11 to keep the focus purely on “’English Jews and a fucked-up family’” (Mendelson qtd. in Edemariam). Considering the work of Mendelson, a focus on the relationship between European influences and British-Jewish writing delivers the most interest for perusal.

Cheyette assumes that “British-Jewish writing articulates a specific set of identities that are framed by a dominant culture of unremitting assimilation” (Contemporary Jewish Writing xv-xvi). Of course, there are limits as to how far a person can actually absorb another culture. In contrast to their Gentile col- leagues, for instance, British-Jewish authors often feature a distinct relationship to continental Europe and many feel “morally obligated [to dwell on all matters related to the] Holocaust [since it seems to be] a necessary presence in any Jew- ish view of recent history, whether explicitly or not” (Woolf 125).20 Hence, Woolf notes that “Jewish fiction in Britain is part of [an] alternative history [since t]he very nature of Jewish experience . . . places these novelists in a particular kind of relationship to continental Europe” (124).21 Thus, British-Jewish writing is inevita- bly concerned with matters beyond Britain (cf. Woolf 125). The ever present lack of rootedness [and] flimsy connection to the British past [are there- fore] recurring theme[s] in second and third generation Jewish writing. In some ways this typifies the immigrant experience in general. But for many British Jews of Eastern European heritage, this is further complicated by the fact that places of Jewish history were brutally annihilated in the holo- caust. The rupture from the past is, in this respect, unnaturally abrupt and deeply traumatic and many diasporic Jews have to rely on memory rather than place in order to make and renew identities. (Gilbert 5)

Charlotte Mendelson’s family background shows how complicated this process can be. Even her “fearless” maternal grandmother could not be asked about the past, or “she would start crying” (Mendelson). Both grandparents “’were from a cultural generation where pain, death, financial worries and terrible things [(including memories of the Holocaust in their case)] were taboo’” (qtd. in Sethi) and thus, forcing out the truth would have made her like a “’monster’” (qtd. in Sethi). Mendelson “resisted” until it was “too late” (Mendelson) and hence, she chose to explore the phenomena of silence and secrecy by literary means (see 3.1). On an interpretative level, the assimilation processes displayed in her body of fictional work might therefore be read as Mendelson’s individual means of cultural negotiation. In this regard, it seems interesting that Mendelson, who “’edits [her]self all the time [in England’” (qtd. in Lerner), only dared to write an “openly” Jewish novel as her third publication.

The reason for the slow and almost hesitant evolvement of British-Jewish literature is that “a Jew writ[ing] about Jewishness [tends to be] perceived to be self-serving, parochial and/or hysterical” (Cheyette, British-Jewish Literature 8). The Booker-awarded and probably best-known22 British-Jewish author to date, Howard Jacobson, agrees “’that English Jews have historically been mired by self- consciousness, in order to avoid accusation of ‘introversion’ and parochialism, have deliberately avoided writing explicitly about their own experiences’” (qtd. in Gilbert 8). Sartre would have dismissed this notion and instead declares a “neces- sity [which is] imposed upon the Jew of subjecting himself to endless self- examination” (qtd. in Brauner 33).23 In fact, one might wonder whether the di- asporic background and lack of national markers for orientation of identity for- mation leads to a “’need to explain himself to himself [and is therefore] a basic drive behind many a Jewish writer’” (Kazin qtd. in Brauner 34). Indeed, Charlotte Mendelson has stated in an interview about her official “Jewish novel”, WWWB, that she “set out to explore ‘what it’s like to be Jewish in England’” (qtd. in Ler- ner), which she describes as “’a particularly odd experience [since w]hatever kind of Jew [one is] - Orthodox, liberal, practicing, non-practicing - [one is] never quite fully English, even in multicultural, cosmopolitan 21st-century London’”. Morris-Reich observes a general tendency that “[i]ndividual Jews are viewed as manifesting Jewishness [and that, thus, contemporary Jews tend to engage them]sel[ves] with Jewishness, and not Judaism” (102-103). As mentioned before- hand, “’Jews had been able to escape Judaism into conversion[, but] from Jewishness there was [and is] no escape’” (Hannah Arendt qtd. in Morris-Reich 103), which means that it is impossible, to “’escape from the Jewish stereotype’” (George Mosse qtd. in Morris-Reich 103).

“’England’”, claims Mendelson, ‘”is the least Jewish country in the world’” (qtd. in Lerner). Especially when growing up, “she fought an obviously misplaced sense of inadequacy” (Edemariam) and still hesitates to “claim to be English with grandparents who sounded as they did” (Mendelson) with accents that “remained so strong that [even after fifty years in Britain,] strangers would direct them to tourist attractions” (Mendelson). In addition to that, Mendelson perceives Britain as “’not the most relaxing place to be Jewish’” which prompts “’Jews either to stick mostly with similar Jews, or to assimilate to the point of invisibility’” (qtd. in Brawarsky). She demands, however, that British Jews ought to discontinue “’keep[ing their] head[s] down’” (qtd. in Westbrook).

The circumstances which lead to the deeply engraved insecurity of Mendelson and many other people with a (Jewish) migrant background have been criticised by Tony Kushner who writes that “’British society [has] failed to provide an environment for the healthy existence of a positive Anglo-Jewish identity’” (2). Being part of a diasporic people with no united homeland as such, a sense of the precarious nature of personal, familial and collective memory is a reoccurring theme in contemporary British-Jewish writing. As identities are increasingly seen as in process, constantly under construc- tion and open to reconstruction, a knowable sense of cultural identity, which could be either remembered or forgotten, cannot be assumed. (Gil- bert 28)

In the same vein, Cheyette states that “the history of Anglo-Jewry reveals . . . the dual pressure on British Jewish writers either to universali[s]e their Jewishness out of the public sphere (which takes the extreme form of conversion) or to particu- lari[s]e it in preconceived images” (Imagined Communities 95). Hence, he argues, a “reductive ‘either/or’ has until recently deformed much of the literary output of Anglo-Jewry into either tame satire or crude apologetics” (Cheyette, Imagined Communities 95). This might be read as a signifier of the extent to which Jews have been treated and viewed as “the Other” in Britain (cf. Cheyette, Contempo- rary Jewish Writing xxxiv). Therefore, Cheyette argues that “[i]t is not a coinci- dence that many of the Jewish writers who thrive in Britain are not British-born.


1 Whereas pre-war European-Jewish authors such as Isaac Babel and Franz Kafka and post-war American-Jewish writers like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth are widely known, up until recently, “few non-specialists [could] bring to mind the name of even one British-Jewish novelist, past or present” (Brauner xi). Instead, the enthusiasm for ethnic British writing seems to be mainly based on Asian- and Black-British writers such as Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Kazuo Ishiguro and Zadie Smith, and has not yet been extended to British-Jewish authors (cf. Brauner xi).

2 Cheyette’s anthology Contemporary Jewish Writing in Britain and Ireland (see Bibliography) introduced Britishand Irish-Jewish writing to a wider public and was the first of its kind.

3 All four novels will be cited throughout this paper and will therefore be abbreviated as “LiI”, “DoJ”, “WWWB” and “AE”.

4 Generally, “the expression ‘coming of age’ is used to mean ‘to reach full legal adult status’ [but the t]erm also carries an imprecision and a cultural relativity that needs to be taken into account[:] When exactly does a character come of age and what experiences are deemed to be integral to it?” (Millard 4).

5 Monika Fludernick has argued that “[i]f one calls oneself a diasporic, then one would like to imitate the Jewish success-story - to be the same but different [as defined by] Homi Bhabha’s celebratory definition of hybridity as more than a merely ‘both/and’ phenomenon” (xxi). “Homi Bhabha’s conception of hybrid identities is charac- teri[s]ed by a continuous attempt to overcome the binary opposition of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’. . . Although Bhabha claims that there is ‘overwhelming evidence of a more translational and transnational sense of imagined com- munities’ (5), he also admits that his ‘third space’ is a rather utopian concept” (Sommer 162).

6 Lyotard, for instance, has describes “the Jew” as a representative of all forms of otherness, nonconformity, and heterodoxy and stated in his work Heidegger and the Jews (1988) that “What is most real about real Jews is that Europe . . . does not know what to do with them: Christians demand their conversion; monarchs expel them; republics assimilate them; Nazis exterminate them” (qtd. in Cheyette, Diasporas of the Mind 46).

7 This notion has been criticised, i.e. by Zymunt Bauman, who worries that it might“’essantili[se] Jews as uniquely timeless, unchanging victims’” (qtd. in Cheyette, Diasporas of the Mind 48) and that the “process of mythology[s]ation [would lead] to a creation of Jewish archetypes, an ‘allo-semitism’” (Brauner 32).

8 Mishra defines two main characteristics of the diasporic imaginary, namely “its grounding in the communal rather than the individual experience and a strong sense of displacement rather than the individual experience and a strong sense of displacement shared by all member of the ‘ethnic enclave’” (Sommer 159).

9 Gilbert lists various repercussions that were undertaken against the Jews. They “were expelled from England in 1290 and readmitted in 1656. Since then various waves of immigration have brought Jews to Britain. From the seventeenth-century Sephardic resettlements, the Ashkenazi dispersals from Central and Eastern Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries, and the migrations of refugees from Nazi Europe, Jews have made their homes in Britain for many reasons and in many ways” (2-3).

10 Indeed, “[m]ass observation reports from the post-war period reveal an undercurrent of anti-Semitic sentiment which manifested itself in a variety of ways. Jewish immigration from Europe was discouraged. Holocaust survivors were not whole-heartedly welcomed to Britain and the German-Jewish refugees who had fled to Britain were often treated with particular suspicion and hostility” (Gilbert 41).

11 Against this background in seems logical that the term Anglo-Jewish writing has been replaced by a more universal British-Jewish writing (cf. Behlau and Reitz 10).

12 This is also the liberal basis of Israel’s Law of Return, in which the legislation allowing any Jew to claim Israeli citizenship, operates.

13 A term invented by “the veteran doctor-slash-theatre-producer, Jonathan Miller” (Margolis).

14 Photojournalist Judah Passow “surveyed a range of personal and public moments in order to explore ‘what it means to be British and Jewish in the 21st Century’. [His] photographs [document] the diversity and variations of contemporary British-Jewish life [and show] that being British and being Jewish can mean many things” (Gilbert x).

15 Brauner notes that “[l]anguage . . . divides Jews more than it unites them: Yiddish, once the lingua franca of most European Jews, is now moribund, few Diasporan (that is, non-Israeli) Jews understand modern Hebrew, and only devout Jews (or those with a special scholarly interest) have any knowledge of ancient Hebrew” (8).

16 Another, very liberal definition is, for instance, the criteria for eligibility for the annual Jewish Quarterly literary awards that merely demand for “’subject matter which further[s] an interest in Jewish life’” (qtd. in Brauner 7).

17 For a more detailed analysis see Cheyette, Bryan, ed. “Introduction.” Contemporary Jewish Writing in Britain and Ireland: An Anthology. London: Peter Halban, 1998. xiii-xxvi. Print.

18 For more information on American-Jewish writing see Behlau and Reitz, 10-11.

19 Garb goes even further in her observation and states that (mainstream, Gentile) literary representations of Jewishness has come to permeate the speech and self-identification of actual Jews who are thus “speaking either a devalori[s]ed or a borrowed tongue and from a body on which was inscribed their ineluctable differ- ence” (27).

20 Soon after the war, the public suffered from “’compassion fatigue’” (Cesarani, After Holocaust, 2) and lost interest in what happened to the Jews. Thus, “despite [a] large number of testimonies [of Jewish survivors of the Second World War] that were published in the years directly following the war, their reception was not encour- aging” (Lothe 3). Another problem was that a lot of Holocaust literature was written in Yiddish, which was not widely spoken after war (cf. Cesarani, After Holocaust, 5). The onset of the Cold War drove it even further away (cf. Cesarani, After Holocaust, 1) and a “myth of silence” (Cesarani, After Holocaust, 5) emerged. “Jewish survi- vors were shunned and neglected [and l]ittle historical research was undertaken” (Cesarani, After Holocaust, 1) and the so-called “era of the witness” only began in the early 1960s, when former Nazi SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem took place, which “inaugurated the era of Holocaust awareness20 that is still with us” (Lothe 3).

21 Kacandes argues that literary works written by authors whose parents were affected by the Holocaust ought to be termed “’Holocaust family memoir[s]’” (179) since they accord to the definition of a memoir being a “’nar- rative composed from personal experience’” (149), including the lives of family members. This notion is second- ed by Vivian Liska and Thomas Nolden, who state that “[g]iven [the] pressures from both the present and the past, it is not surprising that contemporary European Jewish writers favo[u]r certain genres - autobiography, memoir, bildungsroman, family saga - that are particularly amenable to historical reflection, or that the themes appearing prominently in their works often focus on experiences of rupture, displacement, persecution, loss, and recovery” (xi).

22 Jacobson is such a prominent author that in an article which appeared in the Guardian in 2010, journalist Nicholas Lezard wondered whether he was “the only person writing British[-]Jewish novel” and concluded that “[w]hen it comes to describing Jews in [Great Britain], it’s as if Jacobson has cornered the market.”

23 Furthermore, he states that the “’Jew has a personality like the rest of us and on top of that he is Jewish’” (qtd. in Morris-Reich 106).

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"Dark Heart(s)". Family Secrets and Hidden Selves in the Work of Charlotte Mendelson
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (DEL)
British Studies
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Booker, Mendelson, Jewish, British-Jewish, Jews, Family, Microcosm, Sibling Theory, Genesis, Contemporary British Fiction, Howard Jacobson, Ethnic Fiction, Cliché, Stereotype, Kvetch
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B.A. Elisa Valerie Thieme (Author), 2015, "Dark Heart(s)". Family Secrets and Hidden Selves in the Work of Charlotte Mendelson, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/292809


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