At the Edge of Memory: A Family Story
In his new book, Michael King revisits his Kiwi Irish Catholic background, focusing on his experiences of anti-semitism. Nuns explained that God had withdrawn His blessing from the Jews, that the Jews had killed Jesus, and Sister Isidore informed him that Jews were condemned to wander the earth forever. That Christ, Mary, Joseph, and the apostles were all Jews, King wryly notes, simply didn’t merit a mention. At secondary school, the Christian Doctrine teacher called cash registers “Jewish pianos”, and another teacher-priest would fondly recall his father’s get-up for the annual Wairoa A & P Show parade – a grotesque hook-nosed mask and frock-coated Jew costume to portray the quintessential Jew of Christian popular culture, old “Ikey”.
Anti-semitism, widespread among King’s family and friends, is linked to the narrowness that had his father forbid cream cheese, or any cheese at breakfast for that matter, on the grounds that such “foreign habits” were unacceptable to New Zealanders. King registers the shock he felt at hearing the parents of an acquaintance refer to a young woman as that “greasy little Jewess”, and he learnt about the Holocaust. At Victoria University, a little later, he discovered that many of his closest friends and fellow student activists were, in fact, Jewish.
King considers this anti-semitism, especially the school stuff, not to be really serious at all. They were “ill-informed and insensitive – they had certainly not been malevolent”. He contends that Ikey was not “racial malice”, but “simply an assumption that that was what Jews looked like”.
Likewise, he writes that his Uncle Roy’s racist attitudes were “of his generation … rather than personal defects”. Can anti-semitism ever be so benign?
At the Edge of Memory traces the life of Maurice Belgrave, King’s great-uncle by marriage, and the detective work involved in putting his story together. Maurice was a Catholic and long-time resident of Frankton Junction, Hamilton. Affectionately known as Mr Bel, he had a secret, a rather open secret, as it turns out. Michael King’s mother always knew, and others suspected, that he was not the Gaelic-speaking Presbyterian that he had once claimed to be, but a Jew.
Moshe/Maurice was born in Poland or the Ukraine in 1882. He left home around 1894 and lived in London before taking a ship to New Zealand in 1908. Here, he became a travelling salesman and later shop owner in Hamilton. Marrying in 1911, he became a Catholic, raised a family, and died of a heart attack, broken by the knowledge of the devastation of European Jewry by the Nazis. Up till then, there is no reason to doubt that his life here was happy and comfortable, loved as he was by family and friends.
Maurice’s 32 years in Frankton are largely ignored as King pursues the transformation of Moshe the Galician Jew into Maurice, the Catholic New Zealander. Why did Maurice re-invent himself as a gentile? How could he not bring himself to mention that he was Jewish to his children and Jewish friends? The answers King offers often seem at odds with what we know about Jewish migration. From the middle of the 19th century, Jewish life in Eastern Europe changed dramatically as the “ghetto” walls came down, leading to new ideas: Jewish nationalism – Zionist and non-Zionist – Jewish secularism and radical socialism, and new forms of religion. This ideological diversity intensified in the climate of increasing poverty, insecurity, and anti-semitism, and came west with Jewish migrants.
For King, Moshe’s rejection of his Jewish identity is an escape from the “repressive nature of Orthodox Judaism”. Rather than reflecting his uncle’s experience, however, this explanation could be seen as more a transferred reflection of King’s own sense of liberation from the restrictions of his Catholic background – as, for instance, when he writes of Jewish boys in Europe going on to rabbinical training, “even if [they] married and became the father[s] of children”. Such a progression would be impossible for a Catholic priest, of course, but rabbis were, in fact, expected to marry and have families.
Moshe Bigoraj was part of the mass exodus of more than 3,000,000 Jews from Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1914. He probably left home after the pogroms across the Pale in 1891-1892 and joined the 150,000 Jews in the East End of London, and a little later the hundreds of thousands of Jews who left London en route for America and other new worlds. In London, we read, he anglicised himself as Maurice Belgrave. King’s suggestion that the Belgravia resonance was to “disguise” his Jewishness seems unwarranted, since his American cousins, who did no such thing, called themselves Belgray. My own grandfather, another Moshe, also took the name Maurice, but in Poland where many Jews already had both vernacular and Hebrew names.
King overlooks London as the obvious context for answering his biographical queries. Few East End Jews were affiliated to a synagogue. Those who could find a job worked long hours in sweatshops and lived in slum conditions, many surviving on charity handouts, particularly during the economic downturn after 1904. There were anti-immigration groups and rallies with support across the political spectrum, and the calls for immigration controls led to the 1905 Alien’s Act, which successfully excluded many Jews from settling in Britain. A few years later there were mob attacks on Jews, Irish, and Chinese immigrants in London, Leeds and in Wales. To avoid anti-semitic abuse, Jews cut off their beards and side-curls, changed their dress, and kept their heads down. It is not at all surprising that young Bilgoraj chose to join those Jews who left England, nor that he chose not to broadcast his identity. New Zealand would not be much more hospitable to Jews than England, but it did offer the lone Jew the possibility of assimilation by cultural conformity, an option denied the Jewish masses in London’s Whitechapel.
Excluding relatives and friends, King’s one encounter with actual Jews in the book is disastrous. The bearded Kiwi with a borrowed skullcap visited a synagogue to learn more about Mr Bel. As King relates it, he disturbed the congregants when he was caught taking notes – writing is forbidden on the Sabbath – and he was exposed as an outsider ignorant of Sabbath customs. But this was only the beginning of his offence. After “teasing” a group of worshippers, he clearly behaved in so culturally insensitive a manner that he was requested to leave. Yet he asks, “Could this have been the kind of thing that irked my great-uncle?”
The synagogue scene comes to the very heart of this study. With old “Ikey” clearly in mind and a head full of iconic photographs of pre-war Eastern European Jewry, our intrepid genealogist describes the Hasidic synagogue as full of Jews in all their frock-coated, prayer-shawled, bearded glory. He even includes a number wearing tephillin, phylacteries. Except that tephillin are not worn on the Sabbath. We need to ask, is there such a synagogue? Did King really go there on the Sabbath? Did he just “see” old Ikey anyway? Is his lack of sympathy for the customs of others explained by the difficulty of according any respect to Ikey? Was the whole scene sheer artistic invention?
King gets quite carried away with his impression that he has somehow magically entered into the essential, timeless, profound, primitive, and powerful world of traditional Jewry, unchanging “from generation to generation”. He’s back in the Pale and at the same time in the ancient Holy Land itself:
I simply wanted to see, hear and experience forms of ritual that would have been part of my great uncle’s shetl upbringing. And that unmediated, unexplained experience was eerily resonant.
At this point, a certain kind of clichéd romanticism takes over entirely:
When I closed my eyes and concentrated … I could have been listening to Bedouin worshipping under the stars 3000 years ago. It was an ancient sound, redolent of an umbilical pull of continuity that linked these men and boys to their ancestors and to a powerful sense of identity and security.
This has nothing to do with his uncle or Brooklyn Hasidim, but a great deal to do with King’s positive and negative projection of images of Jews. He appears not to be able to see a bearded Jew without suggesting that he looks “especially rabbinical”. King’s assimilation of the complexities and diversity of Jewish religious practice across time and space to a single, simple, primordial experience is not only offensive but based on poor research. His insistence, for instance, that all traditional religion is “fanatical” and to be escaped from is simply misleading and ill-informed. A prayer quorum or regular prayer group, incidentally, is a minyan not a minyam.
This book is an excellent instance of just how deeply embedded our prejudices are and how hard it is to shake off old Ikey. It is difficult to take another culture seriously and even harder to care enough to get it right – to describe what is there without essentialising it and superimposing our well-learned cultural and religious stereotypes. Mr Bel’s story, a tale of conforming to a new culture, of becoming a New Zealander, is fascinating. But as we begin to tell our many different stories, we need to ensure that we create the space to allow individual lives to broaden and deepen Pakeha identity. We need to ensure that we do not marshal these precious stories prematurely into a synthetic, national Pakeha narrative.
In the final chapter, King attempts to bring the story to its climax. He goes to Maurice’s grave in the Hamilton East Cemetery to say Kaddish for his “Jewish” great-uncle, who having suppressed his identity has no one to say it for him. (Kaddish is the Aramaic prayer recited by Jewish mourners for their departed relatives as a mark of respect and as the fulfilment of a family duty.) This is a touching gesture, designed to bring a sort of closure to Mr Bel’s strangely dislocated life. King, however, confuses one ancient memorial prayer with another and recites instead part of El Malei Rachamin. Poor Moshe Bilgoraj still awaits his Kaddish.
Paul Morris is Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.