Childhood sweethearts, Boris and Rosa Shoenbaum, were born in 1896 in the small town of Beresteczko, in what is now western Ukraine. They were wealthy and lived in a large 11-bedroom house in Lvov, with servants. In June 1941, the German army occupied the town in the course of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Before the Nazis arrived there were 330,000 Jews in Lvov. By the end of the war, almost none were left.
Two of the very few who did survive were Grisha and Luba, the Shoenbaum’s two children. The family were originally taken off to the local concentration camp, Janowaska. But Boris bribed his captors, and managed to engineer their escape. Within days, Boris and Rosa had been recaptured and shot. But the teenage Luba managed to pass herself off as a Christian and got a job as a local housekeeper. She hid her brother in a local clock tower for three years, secretly taking him food as he struggled to stay alive amid the constant fear of discovery and the stench of pigeon shit.
After the war, Luba made her way to Israel where she became a financial advisor to the government. Even as an elderly woman in Tel Aviv, she would cross herself and exclaim “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” – the deception had been so deep. Her little brother, Grisha, now Gregory, left for America where he became an eminent biochemist, working to alleviate the side effects of chemotherapy at St Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. He passed away last month at the age of 91. Luba, also now passed away, was my wife’s grandmother. Every year, my mother-in-law goes to Yad Vashem to light a candle for Boris and Rosa.
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A few months ago, my wife had a baby boy, and we have named him Jonah Boris. Given this back story, you can imagine how much we appreciated it when some of my more delightful Twitter followers decided that Boris (my son now inevitably nicknamed Jo Bo) was a less than appropriate name, with some interpreting this as indicative of fascist sympathies. My reaction was unpublishable.
So too was my reaction to the latest comments of the newly appointed Israeli education minister, Rafi Peretz that intermarriage – Jews ‘marrying out’ – “is like a second holocaust”. His comment, made last week, during a government cabinet meeting is indicative of a growing rift between hard line Israeli nationalists and the increasingly liberal Jewish diaspora, especially in places like the United States. Peretz was commenting on a briefing given to the Netanyahu government by Dennis Ross, formerly a senior official in the Obama administration, on recent trends in Jewish communities around the world. Peretz pointedly commented that over the last 70 years, the Jewish community has “lost six million people” – a figure that is commonly understood to be the number of Jews that were murdered in the Shoah.
This wildly insensitive comment has done little to advance the good feelings that the Fraser family has towards the current direction of Israeli politics. At present, we are preparing for a three month visit to Tel Aviv in the Autumn, where I am going to enrol in an Ulpan, a Hebrew language school designed for non-Hebrew speaking immigrants.
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My wife and I decided that our boys – both Jews on account of their mother – ought probably to get their Israeli passports. But the conversation with the Israeli embassy didn’t go well. It seems that our boys will not be allowed to have Fraser on their Israeli passports – though that is their name. The embassy official needed proof that ours was not a sham marriage – or indeed any sort of marriage at all. They demanded Facebook photographs of us together throughout the year before our marriage. Bizarrely, being properly married in a Register Office – with documentary evidence – and living together for three years and having two children didn’t count as sufficient evidence that ours isn’t a sham marriage. But Facebook photos would do. In the face of all this ridiculous officialdom, Mrs Fraser – who is really not to be messed with – is no longer minded to continue with the process of application.
Given the current rate of Jews ‘marrying out’, you might have thought the Israeli government would try a little harder to be encouraging of those, like me, who are not Jewish and who are trying extremely hard to bring up their children as Jews. We promised each other that we would “respect each other’s traditions” in our Ketubah – a kind of pre-nuptial agreement common in Jewish weddings.
Both my Jewish children have been circumcised. They are being brought up in a bilingual family – where Hebrew is spoken at home, despite my struggling with it. My two year old chats with his grandmother on the phone most days in broken Hebrew. Both are being regularly taken to Israel. The Rabbi of the schul in Golders Green – where my father’s family (all Jewish) were seat-holders – has been extremely welcoming, even in our unusual circumstances. But the Israeli government is hardly doing their bit to make all of this any easier.
Part of the problem here is that philosemitism is sometimes viewed with something of the same contempt that Jews rightly have for antisemitism. Indeed, for some, philosemitism is now regarded as an even greater existential threat than antisemitism itself. For whereas antisemitism has often served to bind the Jewish community together, philosemitism has meant, in practice, that the barriers that have kept the Jewish community apart and distinctive are no longer operational.
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The historical Shtetls of Eastern Europe, for example, in which people like the Shoenbaum’s survived for generations, were often regarded as a kind of survival pod in a world of hostility, forcing people together. Antisemitism fostered boundary maintenance. In contrast, in a place like the modern US, where Jews are generally viewed with admiration, the barriers have collapsed and Jews are marrying out, often not bringing up their children as Jewish.
This problem has a long history. The Bible is full of Jews who married out. Judah married an Ethiopian. Joseph married an Egyptian. Moses married a Moabilte and an Egyptian. David – whose great-grandmother was Ruth, a Moabitess – married a Philistine. And the great King Solomon married just about anyone he could get his hands on – 700 wives and 300 concubines, including Pharoah’s daughter, and women from Moab, Ammon, Edom, Sidon, and from the Hittites.
It was Ezra, on returning from the Babylonian Exile, that first introduced the novel idea that Jews ought to maintain their genetic purity by refusing to take foreigners in marriage. He writes (Ezra 9):
“The leaders came to me and said, ‘The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.’ When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled.”
The Book of Ezra ends with a long list of names and then the sentence: “All these had married foreign women, and they sent them away with their children.”
But for all this, what constitutes Jewishness has never been completely fixed. Historically, the boundaries have always been in flux. And with the current situation in large parts of the diaspora, the nature of Jewishness is in flux once again.
Rafi Peretz’s comments are clearly offensive. Describing my marriage as a part of some “second holocaust” is ludicrous. Read Phillip Sands’s magnificent East West Street – or listen to our Confessions podcast – to understand the central role that the city of Lvov had in the formation of the modern meaning of the word genocide. To put what happened to Boris Shoenbaum in the same category as the birth circumstances our precious new child that bears his name – well, I have no words really.
But seeing past my anger, the minister’s statement is indicative of the changing nature of Jewish identity. In 2017, the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute published a study that found that – excluding the Heredi community – close to 60% of US Jews are married to non-Jews and only 15% are married to other Jews and raising their children as Jewish. It is probably these statistics – far more than the sort of shabby, low grade prejudice that currently lurks within the Labour Party – that really bothers those who are looking long-term at the future existence of the Jewish people. For the more conservatively-minded, assimilation constitutes a deeper existential threat.
But for others, all this represents just another shift in the meaning of what it is to be Jewish. If you read properly scholarly work on the subject – such as Shaye Cohen’s brilliant “The Beginnings of Jewishness” – you will see that the boundaries have always been changing. People like Rafi Peretz don’t control what it means to be Jewish. Nor indeed, does the Israeli government. Not even the Rabbinate. And they just don’t like it.